Notice: Trying to get property of non-object in /home2/chrisdie/public_html/wp-content/themes/minimum/category.php on line 17

The (Fourth) Voice of Sovereignty

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Emotions, Mystics, Philosophy, Shamanism, Spirituality, The Soul

Spiritual author Cynthia Bourgeault has written on a discernment process she has developed employing a conversation between what she calls the four voices, i.e. the four human identities of 1. ego/personality, 2. soul, 3. spirit, and 4. Heart. I follow the same basic four part scheme in my teaching, except that what Cynthia calls the Heart, I term The Sovereign (or Sovereignty). But essentially the perspective is the same.

I believe this fourfold teaching of the human being is a crucially important one for our time and age. I recommend reading Cynthia’s post in full (as well as this followup piece). There are a number of significant implications that develop from this basic fourfold scheme. Cynthia describes a very beautiful practice of letting each voice speak in turn in relationship to making a decision (aka discernment).

I want to extend this fourfold idea into some other domains.

The first and perhaps most important takeaway from this schema is that each of the four identities (or voices) has its own worldview. Each identity opens up a specific worldspace–it has a lens, a filter. Different phenomena arise depending on which identity is being accessed. In other words, different values, thoughts, feelings, and insights correspond with each of the four voices. Each identity brings its own world of experience. Each identity creates its own boundary of possible experience and understanding. Each identity is therefore a different world.

One of the extensions of this fourfold scheme that I’ve been working on is to think through essential teachings that derive from each of the four aspects of our being and learn a way to bring them together in a fundamental integrative human teaching. I’m going to explore this idea in greater detail below, but first we need to get a bit clearer on the four terms and to what identity each refers.

The ego or frontal personality is essentially a series of survival strategies. It’s not so much that the personality has various strategies. Rather the ego-personality is (for most people) those strategies. The ego/frontal personality is the aspect of us that we identify with it say at a party or business function. You meet someone for the first time you immediately introduce yourself by name. You both end up talking about where you grew up, what schools you went to, your job. Whether you’re married, divorce, single, have kids or not. The ego (or more simply the self) is the aspect of us that is born and will die. It also knows it will die. This aspect of us is highly conditioned. It has only a few go to moves and will always deploy them. Though even here we can grow into a deeper self maturity.

The soul (lowercase s) is the source of classic shamanic and animistic processes. The soul holds karmic and ancestral energies. The soul (lowercase s) is our connection to the psychic reality of Earth and the land. The soul is what carries forward lifetime to lifetime. The soul is the one who undertakes journeys to the otherworlds. The soul is what travels in our dreams and visions. The soul is the source of subtle energy, connections to angels, guides, deceased loved ones, saints, The Creator. It’s the realm of shadow work, exorcisms, and energy healings. It’s the domain of tarot readings, astrological connections, and the Akashic Records. Access your soul and these realities automatically start emerging. That is these realities exist in the worldspace the soul opens. They are not accessible, for example, by the ego (nor interestingly by spirit).

Spirit is our connection to the universal. Spirit is transpersonal. It is what is the same for all of us. Spiritual language is language of Unity, Oneness, Non-Separation. Spirit is the The One Without a Second. Spirit is Being Per Se. Spiritual teaching, spiritual enlightenment, and spiritual realization then all point us to the recognition of our spiritual nature and identity.

The Sovereign (or Sovereignty) is the aspect of us that integrates our self, our soul, and our spirit into one utterly singular unique expression. The Sovereign is the Flavor of our Incarnation. The Sovereign is a Master Weaver taking all of the aspects of our being, bringing them into our own manifestly distinct human being. The Sovereign weaves us each into an irreducible tapestry of being. The Sovereign is for each of us, the True Guide and Teacher of our being. The Sovereign is Infinity+1.

So with those four identities a bit more clarified, we can now turn to a way of simplifying and understanding the nature of various kinds of human practices. The basic premise here is that different practices are aimed at different voices/identities. For example, personal growth processes are aimed at the personality-ego. There are soul-based practices, e.g. shamanism. There are also teachings on the nature of spiritual awakening.

Each set of teachings is valid from within the bounds of the specific identity with which it works. Another way of saying that is that each set of teachings is true and yet partial. What true but partial means is that those teachings are not valid outside their area of legitimacy. For example it makes no sense to study personal growth techniques in order to about how to relate properly and lovingly to the souls of your ancestors. One is for the ego (personal development), the other is the work of the soul (the ancestors). Similarly it doesn’t help to study spiritual enlightenment in order to solve a psychological issue (that’s called spiritual bypassing).

In this way the four-identity or four-voice framework brings a great deal of clarity.

Working with a Tarot reading (soul) is not going to help optimize your email flow (personal growth/personality). An exquisite Tarot reading can however nurture your soul. Learning to meditate (spiritual teaching) doesn’t help your soul–in fact if you’re not careful it can actually teach you to bypass it. Optimizing your email flow also doesn’t teach you about the nature of your fundamental Consciousness. For that one you need spiritual teaching.

Knowing which identity a practice is oriented towards allows the practice to do what it does best and not be asked to do things it’s not designed to do. As Ken Wilber says practices and teachings are “freed up by being limited”.

An upshot of this meta-frame is that allows spiritual teaching to be relieved of the burden of having to solve all problems for all people all the time. It also restores the inherent value and proper place of soul work–which is often marginalized and/or outright denied in our day with its dominance of personal growth and spiritual teaching. This fourfold meta-perspective also creates a role for personal growth work in relationship to soul work and spiritual teaching that does not allow the personal growth side of things to co-opt soul and spiritual traditions as in much of the contemporary spiritual wellness lifestyle crossover scene (aka LOHAS).

That’s a first key piece coming out of this fourfold framework: seeing how to incorporate aspects from each of the three traditions in a harmonious, mutually supportive manner.

The second aspect is opening an entire new domain of practice and exploration: namely that of The Sovereign. I’m going to explore that rich topic in a later article.

But for now the key point is that when deploying this fourfold meta-frame, spiritual teaching ceases to be the end all be all. Personal growth ceases to be the highest value. Enacting your soul purpose (while crucially important) no longer takes priority of other aspects of being: like spiritual awakening or personal health.

The central learning is how to incorporate at least some of each of the three major traditions to create a basic integrative framework for human practice. By the principle of true but partial, each of these traditions is relativized (in the best sense). They are freed up by being limited.

In the ego-personality realm we have the traditions of psychotherapy, somatic bodywork, and personal growth.

In the soul realm we have energy healing traditions as well as shamanic practice, with all its multitudes of variations and diverse expression.

In the spiritual realm we have teachings of nondual awakening and realization.

We put all these traditions on a horizontal line. Therapy is not greater than nor lesser than spiritual enlightenment. Soul work is similarly neither greater than nor lesser than either psychotherapy nor spiritual awakening.

All need to work in harmony. Each has a specific piece of the puzzle that is unique to it: therapy, soul work, spiritual practice. No one of them can fill in the essential elements brought by the others. Spiritual teaching doesn’t help heal your ego. Working on healing your ego (in therapy) doesn’t teach how to realize your spiritual identity (as for example meditation teaches). Neither of those teaches you about the nature of you as a soul.

Ken Wilber writes that the problem is never partiality. The problem is always wholeness without partiality. When a spiritual teaching claims to be the final ultimate and only valuable teaching it’s preaching a wholeness without partiality, aka an ideology, a fundamentalism.

When however we recognize the partially true value of each of these streams we begin to ask how we can have them work together for the mutual benefit of all. We begin to ask the right set of questions: how do I begin to incorporate elements of ego-personality practice, soul work, and spiritual teaching into a cohesive, integrated process?

That question leads to a very fruitful line of inquiry to be lived. That question is the one I believe we need to be asking of ourselves and each other right now. How do we wisely include them all in their respective truths? That I believe is the one of the core benefits that an understanding of Sovereignty brings (the one that creates a big enough home for each.)

19 Apr 2017 no comments / READ MORE

Liquid Love

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Mystics, Spirituality

2016 was a really painful year for me. It seemed to be that way for a lot of folks—including obviously the wider disturbances in the force globally. It ended for me with intense dives into traumatic territory, the US election, and my mom’s death (the latter two happening the exact same evening). Then just after her burial getting the call to move to Bowen Island and the serious stress of the move, not to mention moving in the midst of the hardest winter here in maybe a generation.

So by the end of 2016 I was left feeling battered.

Then as the year turned anew the land here (Bowen Island) began to work me. I mean both the island as a whole and also the specific plot of land where we’re situated (which has some interesting magic associated with it). I was taken through the most vivid series of dreams, night after night, for almost 4 weeks straight. The last time I dreamed (or rather was dreamed) into that intensity I left full time ordained ministry and began the soul work venture. Except those dreams took place once or twice a month over a year and a half period. There was some 20-30 of those dreams in total during that period. Just about the same number here except they took place basically every night for about a month consecutively.

I couldn’t write before those dreams because of the painful onslaught in my life. I couldn’t write during those dreams because I was in it. There wasn’t sufficient distance/differentiation from it such that I could put any of it to words. I felt muted. I largely retreated from social media and the online world pretty much altogether. Not only was my voice muted but I felt the need to mute much of the noise of the world for a time.

Those dreams and their attendant energy experiences culminated in an experience that took place about a month ago—though it’s not really fair to call it an experience. It was more that I came to honestly acknowledge what was already in front of me. It was already there, in fact it had been there for some time, but I simply couldn’t, wouldn’t, or flat out didn’t want to admit it.

Then one night for whatever reason that recognition took place. I just stopped lying to myself. I couldn’t keep up the facade. It wasn’t even really acknowledging it so much as it was dropping the veil of feigned ignorance.

I sat, utterly quiet and still, simply looking out the window, for something like four hours. In that time I knew in one very real sense, absolutely nothing in my life had changed. While at the same time I also knew everything had changed.

To get a sense of the scope of that change maybe a bit of personal history would help.

I became a spiritual seeker in earnest when I was 19. That intense seeking phase (which included my years in a religious order) “ended” in 2006 with what people would classically call a spiritual breakthrough. But for me that wasn’t the pinnacle I had believed it would turn out to be. Rather the whole thing was a crushing, levelling revelation of the brokenness of my being. The seeker identity revealed itself for what it truly was; I felt the rug had been pulled out from under me. I was prepared for victorious spiritual enlightenment. Life decided (rightly) to mock me instead to my face. I had built my entire identity and sense of purpose and meaning out of becoming enlightened. And Life laughed in my face. (It took me a loooong time to get the joke. Prior to that I simply thought God was a douche. Once I got the joke, I realized how absolutely hilarious the whole thing was/is.)

Out of the wreckage of that absolute mockery came another phase which defined the last decade of my life. The characteristic quality of that period was welcome. By welcome I mean learning to embrace all the different facets and aspects of my humanity. It started with coming to learn about my emotions. Then there was shadow work which morphed into subtler energies and aspects of being (soul). Along with those came practice experiencing and working with physical sensation, leading to exploration of the realms of my own trauma.

From the mix of stirring all those different aspects of my being together—self, soul, spirit—arose a recognition of Sovereignty, i.e. the one that is wide enough to embrace all the different facets, from the most reactive to the most spiritual and everything in between.

The writing I’ve done towards the tail end of the Beams & Struts years and then on this site over the last 5 years has reflected this turn to embrace. The first phase was much more about transcendence. The second phase immanence.

This second, immanental period is now essentially complete. That’s what this new movement means. That’s what I realized occurred a month back. Of course I still have things to learn and processes to do but in some significant, even fundamental way, that phase is done. Burned to a crisp. Toast. My identity and the thrust of things has moved elsewhere. The terrain has fundamentally shifted. The nature of the game has changed once more.

Out of the turmoil, the many deaths, and annihilation of the last year has emerged something else. In saying that I’m not offering some heroic tale of victory from defeat. What has happened doesn’t go back and magically put a bow on everything that went before. It is what it is and it was what it was to journey here. I do honour that transition without being sentimental about its brutality, which was severe.

My focus now is more firmly fixed on what is directly before me. I am humbled by what is revealing itself. I’m grateful (in a different register though) for everything that went into that period of welcome. It was wholesome and necessary and good. Still it’s done. Like I said, toast.

Starting a few years ago a phrase would periodically pop into my head during meditation. I didn’t really know what to do with it but it would appear, disappear, reappear fleetingly, only to disappear back into the mists again.

That phrase was Liquid Love.

That phrase is starting to make the barest of sense now. As always has been the case throughout all these different phases grace has brought to me a few texts I need to help give me basic guidance and orientation to this new space. I’ve only come across a couple of writers who have described this new thing. While their perspectives are deeply helpful to me, I need to find my own words. Anyone else’s will not do, even when I resonate deeply with what they are saying and feel as though they have walked these woods too.

The first piece I wrote here was Welcome. It was the rallying cry for this entire phase (second phase). And without diminishing that phase or its wise necessity, it’s over. I have nothing left to write in that vein. I have a few pieces that I had already begun some months back that I may edit/complete and publish. Or perhaps not, I don’t know.

Regardless, those words and that way of thinking-feeling-experiencing no longer hold sway for me. They’re still valid. They accurately (as best as I could) detailed a realm of experience. It’s just not a realm I walk in anymore. It’s a land that will no longer have me. You can’t go home again. Or in this case I can’t go home again. I wouldn’t be granted entry. Room needs to be made for others to walk in those verdant fields. I’ve been graced by them already. I need to keep moving on. Other lands are calling.

Like lands of Liquid Love

All that’s left now is light and heat. Existence has become a lava lamp-like experience. It’s all boiling while simultaneously being completely normal. It’s not a specific vision or “thing I see”. It’s a pure, pulsing feeling.

It’s not an extraordinary version of ordinary experience. In other words, it’s not mysticism. It’s a extraordinarily ordinary experience. In fact it’s so ordinary (and therefore rare) as to become extraordinary.

It’s ordinary experience lighting up.

The kids nowadays say so and on so is “Lit”.

What if Life, as a whole, and in every particular instance, every singular manifestation, is Lit?

By Lit, I mean that I feel a kind of magma-like quality to everything and everyone. I feel that I’m being liberated from Liberation. Liberation is a most subtle tie that binds. I am not re-shackled but I am now Unfree. Most fortunately non-liberated.

Everything, everyone is boiling.

Boiling in Liquid Love.

It’s liquid, it’s fire, it’s also light though.

It’s not a purifying fire particularly. I’ve felt those purifying kinds of fire. I’ve written about them in fact. That kind of fire is profound and worthy of sincerest respect.

This fire ain’t that fire.

This is boiling.

What’s the point of getting purified if you’re being boiled into liquid, magma-like Love? There’s nothing purifying about it. It’s just dissolving.

What occurred the other night was a deeper consent to accepting this liquefaction of my being not as some periodic alluring state but now as more and more the ground upon which to walk.
The consent then is to liquefaction within me, next to, beside, nearby, and all around me until all those words really are even themselves less solid and more liquid.

This feels like this is the real beginning and everything else before has been preparatory.

As I begin to wax poetic I can feel another movement however to slow my roll. I’m some kind of infant in this domain. Yet the feeling underneath is beyond ancient. Ultra-archaic. Yet still somehow very plugged into the future calling in the present.

The Liquid Love is a light. Liquid love is luminescent.

It’s not a red fire or heat. It’s more like a flame that has heated to the point it’s gone blue or white. But even that image isn’t quite right. I sometimes feel it almost as if it’s a crystal fire. It’s so light it’s beyond white.

Sometimes this crystalline flame brings with it a joyous simplicity. Other times even a sense of grounded and contained ecstasy. While yet other times it’s dire, shredding sorrow.

There are I’m sure many more contours to be discovered and revealed about this space. I look forward in anticipation to those encounters. Some of those moments can leave me feeling a bit exalted, over my skis let’s say. Most moments though feel much more humbling, even humiliating. An affectionate humiliation to be sure but humiliation nonetheless.

But those contours or qualities aren’t the central point. The real point—as far as I can tell so far—is simply remaining in the heat-light itself. To abide in Life boiling. Remaining is a yes, a consent to who I am. Who I am as this light-heat, this boiling, this liquid love.

It’s not consent to be purified but rather consent to be liquified.

The devotion of this is to dwell in this abode and then simply do what I do. To stay in the boiling heat and do what I do: listen, talk, rest, work, relate, whatever it may be. I’m learning quickly the kinds of situations where it’s much easier to remain and keep my stance and moments when that is not the case.

The Sovereignty that revealed itself in the second phase has now become a sovereign heat, a sovereign fire. Sovereign crystalline light-heat.

All those are just words. They are deeply inadequate to who and what this is. I simply hope they might render the maximal amount possible—which would be at best a minimal amount—of this reality.

My writing has to change. What I do in the world has to change. I have no idea how either of those will happen. All that will come. I’m not particularly concerned about that at the moment.

For now just staying with the Light-Heat.

14 Mar 2017 no comments / READ MORE

Getting Purgatory Over Early

“She who comes to be saved, comes to be saved through a fire.” –Origen

“St. Ambrose of Milan speaks of a kind of ‘baptism of fire’ which is located at the entrance to Heaven, and through which all must pass, at the end of the world.  (wiki on purgatory)

“You’re getting purgatory over early.” –My Mom

November 2nd (yesterday) is, in the Roman Catholic Calendar, the Feast of All Souls. This feast is a Catholicizing Christianizing one, predicated on the earlier aboriginal traditions of ancestor veneration, both in European (“pagan’) religions as well as in The Americas, e.g. Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Mexico.

November 1st in the Roman Catholic Calendar is All Saints Day, a day to remember those whose souls entered into paradise directly upon death. All Saints is the root of the word Halloween–which is Eve of All Hallows (hallowed = saintly).

All Souls, on the other hand, (Nov 2nd) remembers those who died with, as it were, “work still to do.” That is to say, the remembrance of those who experienced grace but the more comprehensive purifying effects of grace had not yet taken place.

During the Middle Ages, the practice of remembering one’s ancestors became connected to the rising doctrine of purgatory. All Souls Day became in particular a day to pray for the release of souls from purgation.

In the later middle ages, a series of abusive and manipulative practices around purgatory became big business. It was these practices–for example the selling of indulgences–that became the rallying cry for the Protestant Reformation.

Consequently, the doctrine of purgatory later came to be denounced in total with the Reformation. While I agree with the criticism of the abusive practices surrounding purgatory, I think the loss of purgatory has been a major loss for Western consciousness.

What I mean is that though the term purgation evokes a lot of resistance in people, I think it’s a wonderful term and a beauteous grace–one we need to recapture. It’s important to keep in mind that the doctrine of purgatory is for those who have already been saved and the healing and purifying effects of salvation still have to do their work.

In The Divine Comedy, when Dante arises from Hell and sees Mt. Purgatory he immediately weeps, for he knows he is already (as it were) in paradise. He is already assured a place in paradise. The long climb up on Mt. Purgatory towards Paradise (Heaven) is a path of graceful unburdening so that he might rise up. (I’m going to come back to this point in a bit).

I was raised very traditionally Roman Catholic. Praying for those in purgatory was a common part of my upbringing.

When things would be rough or unnecessarily harsh, my mom would say (as quoted above) that I was “getting purgatory over early.” What she meant of course was that one could go through purgatory while alive here on earth. Basically one could work off one’s purgation here on earth so as to have less of it on the other side of the veil of death.

Now as weird (or potentially masochistic) as that worldview might appear, I actually think there’s something to it, though not in the way I believe my mom tended to (mis)understand it. It isn’t about just random suffering happening to you, causing you to pay off some kind of penalty and either you go through it now or later. That makes God a sadist.

The truth of purgation is that to be saved one must pass through a baptism of fire as Origen and St. Ambrose said. That fire of grace is purging, purifying. It is alchemy–turning the lead of our being into gold. (This view accords with shamanic traditions the world over btw). And that fire can be experienced on this side of the grave (otherwise it will be experienced on the other side).

“He who comes to be saved, comes to be saved through a fire.”

Saved here means experiencing the entrance into paradise, i.e. the soul (the lowercase ‘s’ is important here) ascends to the realms of paradise.

In traditional shamanic cosmology there are classically three worlds: the lower world, the middle world (our world), and the upper world. The upper world is what most people would call heaven (though more technically should be called paradise). The middle world is our world. In Roman Catholic theology, the lower world is divided into two sections: hell and purgatory. I see hell and purgatory more along a continuum than a strict division as in Roman Catholic thought.*

The point is this: the imagery purgatory consists of fire.

When the fire is embraced it turns out not to be the source of suffering but rather the source of healing and purifying grace.

The deepest hell, as Dante so brilliantly understood, is coldness. Hell is pure isolation, incoherence, dissociation, alienation, and traumatic freeze. Hell is not hot. Hell is ice cold. Having worked with hellish energies and realities in people, I can tell you that Dante’s depiction of the bottom of hell as total frozen is not a metaphor but a literal description.

Purgatory is fire. Paradise is the ecstasy that occurs when one acclimates to the temperature of God’s fire. The fire no longer burns but becomes pure bliss.

So if November 1st (All Saints) is the day to remember all those in paradise. If November 2nd is to remember those in purgatory. Then I would propose that November 3rd is a great day to pray for our own purgation here on earth. November 1st is All Saints, November 2nd is All Souls, November 3rd could be Day of Our Own Purgation.

When people work with plant medicines, they purge, literally, bodily. In energy work, deadened energies are burned off us. In trauma work, when places of freeze re-awake, they release the flight or fight mechanism (“the fire”) held underneath the frozen exterior.

It’s like going outside on a cold day and your fingers become numb. You come back indoors and your fingers start to thaw out. As they do, your fingers ache, even hurt because feeling is coming back to them. The ache however is a wonderful sign because you know that once your fingers warm back up to room temperature, the pain will go away. You know the numbness is wearing off.

It’s the same with purgatory–whether you face it in this life or on the other side.

Our souls are deeply numb. Only heat is going to wake them back up and bring back feeling. In the intermediate period between the numbness beginning to wear off and the fingers being fully back to normal temperature, that is the period of purgation.

The fire brings back feeling. Our world is predicated on dissociation, on numbing out, on frozen traumatic conditioning. Our souls are ill. Pieces of our souls lie forsaken and strewn about.

What is needed then is a cleansing fire. A fire of Love, to reignite our frozen souls. With that fire comes pain but not suffering.

And this is a key point. Anyone who has ever gone through a truly purgative and cleansing process knows that that what occurred is they felt into and through the pain and as they did the suffering (amazingly) decreased.

Suffering is largely what happens when we do not stay directly with pain–or rather with the series of sensations we typically unhelpfully label as pain. So with the fire comes the purging, no doubt. But it is not a pain built around moral punishment. Here in the popular traditions of medieval Christianity really are problematic. The pain is not to pay off some penalty. Purgatory is not jail time with God the Vengeful Judge.

The process is not built out of a negative sense of Judgment but rather proper Judgment, which is to say Merciful, Loving Justice.

I can’t stress this point enough. In my experience working with people what prevents them from facing purgation is the sense that they are being punished. In other words, they resist the process because they believe the process communicates a message of negative shame. 

“You’re a bad person.”
“This is karmic retribution for your sins.”
“You deserve this [as punishment].”

These false beliefs need to be burned.

“They who comes to be saved, come to be saved through a fire.”

Being purged has nothing to do with being judged as a failure or fundamentally bad. It is precisely the opposite.

Purgation is a process that reminds us that in our essence we are fundamentally good. In our essential nature we are whole, redeemed, beloved.

We have however strayed from our essential nature. As such we have picked up the residue, the accretions of living in ways out of alignment to our essential nature.

Purgation is a message from God saying we are Loved and offering us a way to be released of the violence, trauma, dissociation that burdens and haunts our souls.

An ancient image in the Christian tradition is that the soul is a mirror. The mirror has unfortunately becomes obstructed by layers of mud that have clung to the surface of the mirror. The mirror is still a mirror but in practice is is not functioning as one–i.e. the essential light of a person (their soul) is still present but no able to be experienced. 

Purgation is to remove the mud that has caked onto the soul. It is one of the best feelings in the world just after having been purged. To feel the release of some weight one has been carrying for years, decades, lifetime, or maybe even lifetimes. That is a direct experience of Grace.

Once the mud is gone, the mirror naturally reflects the light of God. That is what is meant by Paradise.

In my practice, I’m blessed to be able to witness the purgation of souls in real-time. In my own path, I have experienced numerous times the grace of having my soul purged by God.
The reason St. Ambrose said there was a baptism of fire one must go through before entering the gates of paradise is precisely that. We want to be as cleansed as possible, as much as grace will allow in our case, to reflect the Light of Loving Truth.

The way is to trust that purification is happening with a space of Grace (a fundamental space of Resource and Safety). When we learn to co-operate and work intelligently with purgation, we can make it go relatively more smoothly.

But go through purgation we will.

The word salvation comes from a root meaning “healing”–like the world salve. Purgation is the pain that occurs as the Great Doctor lances boils, excises growths, and extracts the poisons held in our souls.

That is why purgation is grace. It’s not a moralistic process. It’s not a criminal process. It’s medicine for the soul. Shamans, recall, are called doctors of the soul.

On All Saints Day (Nov 1) we pray for the saints and ask them to pray for us. On All Souls (Nov 2) we pray for the souls of our ancestors and ask them to pray for us. On what I’m calling Purgation Day (Nov 3) I recommend we pray for the graceful purgation of our souls. We pray for our souls and ask our souls to pray for us.

I can testify to how truth of Origen’s words that all who be healed (saved) must do so through a fire. I can testify to the truth of St. Ambrose’s words that all would enter into paradise (bliss) must first go through the graceful baptism of fire. And I can testify to the truth of my mom’s words that it is possible to go through purgatory while here alive in this reality.

* Personally I tend to the view, strong in the Eastern Christian tradition (e.g. Origen) of the apocatastasis, i.e. that there will be a universal salvation. Or at least the option of it. Contrary to Roman Catholic theology, I don’t believe in eternal punishment in hell. I do believe in the possibility of everlasting damnation–though I’m unsure if that actually applies to any soul. What I mean is that I believe all souls are given infinite chances to be redeemed. Whether they will accept that offer I cannot say.

02 Nov 2015 1 comment / READ MORE

Fear Is Not The Opposite of Love: A Critique of A Course in Miracles

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Emotions, Mystics, Philosophy, Shamanism, Spirituality, The Soul

“Fear is the opposite of Love.” –A Course in Miracles

A Course in Miracles is one of, if not the, most popular spiritual texts of The New Thought tradition. The back story of the writing of a the text is a bit complex and quite fascinating actually (see history here). Essentially A Course in Miracles is claimed to be the words of an inner voice, given to Helen Schucman. Schucman believed that voice to be the voice of Jesus. The text is often popularly shortened to The Course and I’ll use that shorthand throughout but important to remember the official title is A Course in Miracles (A, not The).

The Course or Course-inspired views of spiritual life have come into mainstream popularity, particularly through the writings of contemporary spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson. Those ideas have now extended to a new generation of spiritual teachers, particularly strong in what’s known as the spiritual but not religious community of seekers in North America. I encounter ideas who have their roots in The Course (and certain strands of New Thought theology more broadly) constantly in my private practice. Overall what I see are Course ideas and beliefs creating problems for practitioners. While it’s far too much to explore the entirety of the teaching of The Course, I do want to explore this quotation:

“Fear is the opposite of Love.”

This is the core claim of The Course. It’s also in my view misguided. In what follows, I want to explore why I believe that claim to be false, as well as what relationship, if any, fear and love should have to each other.

To explore this topic I’m going to use quotations from Marianne Williamson’s classic book Return to Love. Return to Love is a popular rendering of A Course in Miracles. Return to Love I think brilliantly portrays and clarifies the overall teaching of The Course. My disagreements are with elements of the teaching of The Course itself. But in order to understand what The Course is arguing for, Return to Love is, in my mind, the best entry point.

Here for example is a very important quotation from the beginning of Return to Love that lays out the overall vision of A Course in Miracles:

“A Course in Miracles calls itself a ‘mind training’ in the relinquishment of a thought system based on fear, and the acceptance instead of a thought system based on love.” (Return to Love p.20).

I want to be clear then about what my critique is because it’s a somewhat subtle point. I’m NOT arguing that The Course in Miracles fails to achieve what it sets out to do. I do see people who follow The Course moving from a thought system based on fear towards a thought system based in love. I do see The Course’s teaching fulfilling its stated mission. Of course no one ever completely follows that path in every moment of their lives, but as a teaching it does I believe succeed in its stated goal.

It’s that goal however that I believe is a problem. I think starting with the mind (‘a thought system’) is ultimately the wrong place to start spiritual teaching. The mind needs eventually to be incorporated into an overall integrated spiritual teaching yes, but I don’t believe it’s the place to begin. More importantly I don’t believe the ultimate aim or purpose of spiritual practice should be to move us from fear to love.

Not starting with the mind and not moving from fear to love. The two are related but distinct elements. The rest of this piece is an exploration of those intertwined critiques.

Now before diving fully into this topic, I realize I’m stepping into some tender territory here. I know plenty of people who have received enormous benefit from following The Course. For example, Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love is a testament to the grace The Course brought to her life. I acknowledge that I’m going to be touching some raw nerves.

It’s certainly true that people can (and do) receive benefit from following The Course. This isn’t an abstract proposition–I know people who fit this profile. They are friends, acquaintances, clients, and the like.

Nonetheless I still maintain that the benefits of The Course bring with them unforeseen shadows. It’s these shadows I want to explore. I believe it’s important to explore these shadows because they often go unspoken. Bringing the shadows to light allows us to retain the beauties of The Course while releasing it’s flaws (of which I think there are some significant ones).

So to the critiques….

A central reason I believe that the mind is a poor place to begin spiritual practice is that the mind inherently creates binaries: light versus dark, up versus down, truth versus falsehood, feminine versus masculine, the list of such binaries is endless.* This binary formulation is the very nature of the mind. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

In The Course the fundamental binary is between Fear and Love. Once that fundamental binary is set, then The Course becomes a mind training to move from fear to love. Very often when a binary is set up, one side will be seen as positive and one as negative. In the Course this is definitely the case. In the Course, Fear is wholly negative and Love is wholly positive. One is hell (fear) and one is heaven (love).

Since the teaching is sourcing itself in the mind and has created a binary, then the training has to focus on how to move out of one (fear) and into the other (love). If one views the world as divided between Fear and Love, with fear being evil and Love being holy, then obviously and rightly the next question to ask is:

“How do I move from the evil (fear) to the holy (love)?”

It’s in that context that we can understand The Course’s emphasis on the notion of “shifts in perception”. Perhaps the most quoted line of The Course is “a miracle is a shift in perception”. A shift that is from fear to love.

Having created the fundamental metaphysical binary between Fear and Love, The Course will then argue that fear is unreal. The illusory nature of fear is the key to moving from it to love. In the teaching of the Course, once we see that fear is not real and connect with what is real (Love), then fear melts away.

Unfortunately the human being is much more than simply a mind and fear is much more real than a thought. And here is where things begin to unravel.

The crux of the problem is this:

Fear is an emotion. It is also intimately related to the proper functioning of the human nervous system.

Love, on the other hand, is a choice.

Contrasting Fear with Love is contrasting an emotion with a choice. That’s not comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to 747s. Or apples to duplexes.

The Course teaches a way of mentally shifting from fear into the spiritual state of love. Unfortunately the shadow-side of that maneuver is that it bypasses human sensation and emotion.

Describing Fear as illusory may be true when looked at from the level of the mind, but it’s definitely NOT true when it comes to the level of the human body and emotional life.

Attempting to route around fear, rather than turning towards it, leaves the person subtly (or not so subtly) quite fearful and anxious. Paradoxically it is only when we turn towards and embrace our fears that fear stops controlling us.

But that is not what The Course teaches.

What The Course does is exploit a temporary short-circuiting mechanism of the human bodymind. That’s why it can and does work but only for so long and only in a partial way.

Williamson states:

“The Course teaches that fear is literally a bad dream. It is as though the mind has been split in two; one part stays in touch with love, and the other part veers into fear. Fear manufactures a kind of parallel universe where the unreal seems real, and the real seems unreal.” (p.23)

Fear is not a bad dream. At least it need not be. It’s no illusion. Fear is simply an aspect of human existence as a sensory, emotive, incarnate being. Realize this and the neat and tidy metaphysical system of strict separation between love and fear begins to blur and break down.

The Course is named a course for a reason. As a course, it uses imagery of training. There’s a method. Life is a school.

I’d submit that all these metaphors are a consequence of the fact that one is beginning the process at the point at which fear is most calcified, i.e. the mind. Fear begins as sensation, from which it takes on its emotional charge. When Fear is met at the level of our sensation and emotion then it can be worked with. Fear can be raw, even intense at times, or more garden variety. But fear in the sensory and emotional realms–when rightly worked with–is actually quite supple and fluid. It’s dream-like in its movement but it is literally not a bad dream. Fear is literally a sensation and emotion.

When we deny our fear such that it spreads from our nervous system through our emotional self into the mind, then we are too late. Fear in the mind is far too rigid. Therefore it takes the most forcefulness to undo it from that point. Hence a course, a training regimen.

Realistically there are only two options at the point at which fear has overrun the mind:

1. return back to the level of sensation and emotion and learn to work with fear (i.e. work on it where it originates)


2. deny its reality and try to route around it.

The Course chooses the second option. It therefore does not undo fear so much as skips over it.

The second option–the one the Course chooses–would be a solution if one could maintain that state of Love 24/7. That however is wildly unrealistic. Consequently as soon as one falls back from Love then the fear will return, likely with more power attached to it.

If however we sink to the level of our sensation and our emotions, then fear is simply another aspect of our human existence. Fear has wisdom to teach us. If we set up our spiritual system as moving from Fear to Love, then we will never learn from Fear. We will never gain the gifts of Fear because we are always running from it, rather than turning toward and (intelligently) facing it.

It’s not possible to turn towards and embrace our Fear from the place of our minds. The Course is right about this point, but wrong in its assumption that therefore fear is to be denied altogether.

It is however very much possible to turn towards, to become intimate with, and to embrace our fear. It becomes possible for fear to be transmuted. It is possible–indeed I would argue essential–that fear be transmuted and its hidden light released.

“Fear is to love as darkness is to light.” –Return to Love, p. 22

The view of The Course is that there is only Fear and Love, Darkness and Light and we embrace the Light and deny the Darkness. I argue instead we should become darkwalkers, we should critique the bias towards The Light (aka “High Vibrations”) and instead learn to find the Light hidden in the darkness.

In the perspective of The Course, fear is never redeemed. Fear is never transmuted or turned into Light. No part of fear is connected to the Light.

But all those views turn out to be wrong. I would take the wisdom of Fear any day of the week (and twice Sunday) over the foolishness of such seeming profundity.

Fear is actually a word commonly used for three related but distinct emotions: fear, anxiety, and terror/panic.

–Fear is an emotional response to perceived threats.
–Anxiety is an emotion that warns us that we’ve entered a place of some instability in our lives, like a boat rocking on choppy waves.
–Terror/Pain is the wisdom that comes forth under great duress to take the hit of trauma for us.

From the point of the view of the nervous system, fear is a process intricately related to our flight, fight, and freeze responses.

From the point of view of the soul (or our energy), fear is often a harbinger, a call to enter the cave and descend into the underworld, to become initiated–like Batman.

From the point of view of our emotions, fear is an invitation to connect to our animal nature, to sharpen our senses, and attune to our environment.

Different teachings exist to cultivate this intimate relationship with fear–emotionally, instinctually, and energetically. We can learn to regulate and work with our fear emotionally, bodily, and energetically.

All of those are ways of wisdom.

The Course however does not offer us such wisdom, wisdom we so desperately require in our world. The amount of fear, anxiety, and terror in our world continues to rise. The Course offers no solution to working with those emotions, only a way to try to flee from it. Except, in trying to run from fear, we are bringing unconscious fear with us. 

As Williamson states quoting directly from The Course itself:

“The ego is literally a fear based thought.”

No it’s not. The ego is literally not at all a fear based thought.

We see here the problem of defining the central aspect of humanity as our minds. The Course is locked into a worldview characteristic of the 17th and 18th centuries European thought, e.g. that of Rene Descartes. A worldview in which the human being is a disembodied mind only marginally attached to a material object it possesses called ‘it’s body.’ Our minds are only one aspect of our incarnation which include our physical, emotional, instinctual, energetic, and spiritual aspects. What The Course does is take one aspect of us (the mind) and separates out of the context of the entire range of our humanity and declares it the center around which everything else orbits. This decision is deeply confused and problematic.

Since The Course defines the mind as the central aspect of our humanity (as opposed to one important aspect of our humanity) it has to turn everything into a thought. It turns Fear, which is an emotion, into thought. It’s turns Love, which is an aspect of will, into thought. It turns the ego–which is a feeling mechanism of being a human organism–into a thought. It even turns our spiritual nature into a thought:

As Williamson states, “The altar to God is the human mind. To ‘desecrate the altar’ is to fill it with non-loving thoughts.” (p. 24)

In so doing, The Course denies our souls and spirits as transcendent of our minds, which all the great mystical traditions will most certainly tell you they are. Our souls and spirits include our minds yes but they transcend them as well.

The human mind is not the altar to God. Saying so ends up convincing people that thinking about being spiritual is the same as actual spiritual realization (which by definition transcends the mind).

By defining us simply as minds, The Course cuts out our nervous systems, our emotional lives, as well as the aspects of us that are beyond our minds. It’s represses both the “lower” range of our incarnation (sensation, emotion) as well as the “higher” range of our incarnation (souls, spirits), leaving us claustrophobically trapped in the middle range of our incarnation (the mind).

Which brings us back to the ego. The ego is not a fear-based thought. The ego is what it feels like to be a bodily human organism. The ego is the feeling of being an individual homo sapien sapien. The ego is the feeling of being a bodily human self-conscious organism.

The human body is a feeling mechanism. The human organism feels and senses moment to moment. It feels and senses the environment, other beings, and its own internal state(s). Sensation is how your nervous system feels. Emotions are how your heart feels. Thought is how your brain feels. And the ego is how the bodymind as a total, single organism feels.

When understood this way the ego is not the enemy, just as fear isn’t either. When however we don’t understand the ego in its proper depth as the total feeling response of the human bodymind organism, then we come to experience ourselves as an isolated egoic subject separate from the body. And such a being is inherently fearful (in the negative sense). The Course starts from that isolated fearful stance and then tries to correct it by shifting out of it into Love.

The result of doing that however is that The Course doesn’t understand the deeper feeling reality of the ego. It takes a very immature form of the ego and then defines the ego only as its immature form.

This is why a spiritual system based on the idea of a mental training course is precisely unhelpful. Learning a mental training system does not teach anyone how to feel. In particular The Course does not teach us how to feel with and through our fear.

“Our work is the work of casting fear from the world.” –Return to Love

I don’t believe this is true. Franklin Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I think he was wrong. The thing to fear is not knowing how to work with fear wisely. Not knowing how to transmute our fear is indeed a quite scary proposition. It’s one that rules our world.

But Fear as such is not our enemy. What we do with Fear–use it to abuse people, project it onto others, allow it to debilitate us–these must be cast out. What we do out of unconscious, negative, shadowed Fear that is negative.

Healthy conscious integrated fear however is the way to resolve those issues. It’s not Love that has an answer to negative, unconscious Fear. It’s only healthy awakened fear that can solve that problem. And we will never access awakened healthy fear if we have denied its very existence by labelling all fear as inherently illusory and destructive.

When we treat Fear as the enemy we make it into the scapegoat. We seek to purge it from ourselves and purify it from the world. That is a truly terrifying prospect (with terrible historical weight behind it).

Fear is very much real on the level of our nervous system and our emotions. To deny the reality of fear on the levels of our being on which it exists is a dangerous and ultimately foolish perspective. Any spiritual system like The Course that teaches that fear is not real is inevitably leading to anti-material spirituality, a spirituality that will deny body, flesh, and earth as the truly spiritual abode because fear is very much an intrinsic aspect of our bodily human existence. Fear is in our bellies, our hearts, our spleens, not just our brains.

Saying fear is the opposite of love and that we need to move from fear to love weirdly leaves fear forever unloved. The way fear is cast from the world is not by making it unreal, but rather by transforming it. It is Love, the choice to embrace Fear and transmute it in the heart, that alone can cast the negative expressions of Fear from this world. In the view of The Course there is no redemption, there is no transfiguration, no true liberation of physicality, materiality, earth, emotion, flesh, and blood. In the Course there is only a spiritual escape from it all, leaving fear further marginalized only to return in darker, more terrible forms. Fear needs to be transformed by being brought into the Heart of Love, not denying its reality.

Fear does not intrinsically lead to the dark side (contra Master Yoda). Fear can be our ally and it needs to be an ally in the struggle for goodness and love. This path we must walk.

* Though this isn’t my focus here, it is true that the mind can also do various forms of self or meta-reflection. In can work with binaries as dialectics. It can deconstruct the binaries. It can begin to integrate them in various complex ways. But no matter what it’s still within the basic whirl of the binary.

09 Oct 2015 3 comments / READ MORE

Infinity +1: Spirituality for the 21st Century

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Mystics, Philosophy, Spirituality, The Soul

This site is dedicated to soul work. It’s especially dedicated to the development of a spiritual teaching for the 21st century, a spiritual teaching that takes souls seriously. Consequently, I’ve written a number of pieces exploring the nature of spiritual awakening. I’ve written about loving presence, bliss, and most recently on the true understanding of Shakti (Radiance). 

In so doing, I’ve been revealing classic signs or expressions of spiritual awakening.

But it is important to recognize that Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are NOT the ultimate truth. They are effects in the human bodymind of touching into something we might call the ultimate truth. Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are the consequence of this “something” flooding our humanness, not the something itself. 

This something is called variously The Ultimate, The Divine, Spirit, The One Without a Second, The All, Buddha Mind, The Godhead, The Void, etc.

What this means is that spiritual states like Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are not to be sought as ends in themselves. We aren’t seeking them as spiritual states to consume for personal gratification. The great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche labeled that false approach “spiritual materialism.”
Rather Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are attributes of that prior something. We’re interested in that prior something whatever or whoever it may be. Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are pointers. They are signs that as humans we are connected and properly in touch with this “something.” Presence being when the human mind uncoils in the face of The Ultimate. Heart the center of the chest, The Creative Impulse the belly, Radiance the root, and Bliss the breath-energy and body as a whole.

This approach is a “descending” or “incarnational” model of spirituality because it starts with Presence and works “down” from there. Down in the sense of our bodyminds opening in a descending fashion to the Ultimate Reality.

Because these spiritual effects or attributes are so powerful, however, they can become alluring, even addictive. We can easily forget they are pointers. We forget what they are pointing to and take them as ends in themselves. We see to grasp, cling, and hold onto them (i.e. “spiritual materialism”). 

So it’s crucial to remember that what I’ve been exploring through my writing and in actual experience through my teaching is how connecting to the spiritual pointers point us back to that Something.

Words like The Ultimate, The One, Spirit, The Divine are stand-in words for that Something, that something of which Presence, Bliss, Radiance, Creativity, and Heart are attributes. 

A term like Spirit is just that…a term. It’s not something to be taken literally. As if Spirit were actually some kind of gigantic ethereal spirit.

In fact all those terms: The Ultimate, The Divine, Spirit, The One Without a Second, The Buddha Nature, these are all just that–terms. metaphors. Any term that has ever been chosen in history to name that something is just a term. Some terms are relatively speaking more helpful and illuminating than others, but none contain that something. 

No word, no term, no metaphor can adequately name that something. 

In Buddhism this teaching is known as shunyata, i.e. emptiness. All terms are empty of the ability to name that something. The word “that something” is itself inadequate because it’s means some-thing as opposed to other things. And this “something” is not in opposition to other things.

It’s empty, it’s vacant of such a meaning. 

All the words, all the phrases are Void (shunyata). The terms are not the ultimate truth. They are void. In Taoism they say,

“The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.”

So names for that something are never in the end adequate to the task. At best they are imaginative metaphors.

But this something is something. No word or phrase can ever adequately contain and control and name that something. All those terms, all those words are empty. But that something is not an absence. That something is definitely not empty.

In fact, it’s the total opposite. It’s not empty but absolute fullness. It’s a Void yes. But a Void that turns out, the moment one experiences it, to bring forth Love, Creativity, Radiance, Bliss, and Luminous Presence. It brings these qualities forth spontaneously, without effort. It is a pure Grace.

The Void then, Sprit, is not a lack of something but an emptiness that allows for everything to happen simultaneously. This Void, This Spirit, is not something other than the world of our experience. It is the opening, the clearing, in which everything is happening and which everything is an expression of. To experience that is to experience the natural, spontaneous, unplanned for, arising of Wakeful Presence, Radiance, Bliss, Creative Desire, and Unconditional Love. 

In other words, the way we know we’ve “locked into” that All-Encompassing, Bright Void is again through the effects, the attributes of Presence, Bliss, Radiance, Heart, and Creativity.

This is true nonduality or spiritual awakening. 

My argument goes one step further, one step beyond the traditional enlightenment or nondual teachings. The argument of this teaching that the only way to truly incarnate this something, this Void of Pure Light and Love, is as a Soul. That is, each of us is a singular, irreducible version of That Luminous Void. We are the entire process of Creation manifest in a personalized form. The entire process–gross, subtle, and causal. Physical, emotional, mental, cultural, political, psychological, subtle, spiritual.

Put them all in the blender, hit puree and you get a Soul.

Said another way:

Only by becoming properly bounded can we truly embody infinities.

In traditional enlightenment teaching there tends to be a bias towards “no boundaries”. Spirituality is typically about becoming one with The All. Spirituality is about what is universal, the same for all of us. There is a very important truth there–the truth of deep equality and humility. But what traditional spirituality does not offer (in my mind) is a concrete way to manifest and incarnate this realization in the midst of daily life…at least for those of us not living in caves or monasteries.

If we take our spiritual nature however to be our True Nature, then our True Nature turns out to not be our own but rather a universal (and therefore non-personal) one. Spiritual teaching that over-emphasizes The Oneness over The Many-ness promotes a conformist model, it tends to deny emotion, and creates a very static homogenous kind of space (e.g. everybody shaves their heads or wears the same color robes or takes new names, etc.)

The Soul is about what is singular, distinct, and flavorful about our being. The Soul is about irreducible-ness. The Soul creates the proper sphere of one’s being. The Soul creates a true awakened boundary for a being. It’s not a boundary that separates them off (like the ego) but a boundary that allows for true participation, true communion, and true relationship.

Only by becoming properly bounded can we truly embody infinities.
Only as Souls can we incarnate our realization of Spirit. 

So to review:

Spiritual attributes like Presence, Heart, Radiance, Bliss are natural, spontaneous expressions of the realization of something prior to (yet inclusive of) those realities.

Call that something prior The Godhead, The Divine, Spirit, The Void, The One. Just don’t take those names to be anything other than pointers because most precisely there is No Name for That One (including even The Unnamed). 

Because Presence, Radiance, Bliss and the like are expressions or attributes of The One, they are not to be sought as ends in themselves. They are simply pointers or graces, signs of realization. The realization of The Void-The Divine is what is ultimately important. Presence, Radiance, and Bliss are not to be denied but they aren’t to be sought or clung to either (that is the error of spiritual materialism).

To truly live and incarnate realization of The One (The Void, The Godhead) one must do so through The Soul. It is only the Soul that paradoxically can create a unique sphere or boundary of one’s being, a boundary that is somehow able to hold the infinite within it. 

As kids you may remember the game where you would be constantly one-upping each other.

Someone would say, “I’m smarter times a hundred.” “Yeah, well I’m smarter times a million.” “I’m smarter times 300 million.” “I”m smarter times a billion”. “I’m smarter times a trillion.” 

And on and on it would go until someone said: 

“I’m smarter times infinity.” 

And then the reply would inevitably come: “Smarter times infinity plus one.” 

To which the counter-reply was always, “You can’t have more than infinity.” 

In this teaching however we can. Infinity +1 turns out to be correct view. The Infinite (Spirit) is embraced by a Soul, which adds a +1. The +1 there being a unique, singular, irreducible incarnation of The Infinite. It is the +1 quality of The Soul embracing Spirit (rather than the other way around) that creates the possibility for spiritual awakening to be incorporated genuinely into daily life.

15 Sep 2015 1 comment / READ MORE

The Case For Social Exorcism: On Charleston

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

–The Letter to the Ephesians Chapter 6, verse 12

A month ago in response to the protests in Baltimore, I wrote a piece called Political Shamanism and the Subtle Energetics of Racism.

In that piece I argued that racism is not only a phenomenon of the manifest concrete world (though it is most definitely that as well), but is also a reality of the subtle world: i.e. the world of our energy, our dreams, even our souls. Racism is, in part, a soul illness. It is a debilitating virus of the soul that eats away its host from the inside. It also harms the souls (and often the bodies) of those whom it chooses to hate. I cited the ancient wisdom teaching that souls are not only individual but also collective–there are souls (animas) of places, of institutions, of peoples. They too, just like individual souls, can become sick.

In that piece I was focused on the collective soul of white America and its soul illness of racism. This week there was the racially motivated terrorist attack against the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina. Following this story, and much of the analysis and coverage of it, further convinces me of the importance of that initial argument.

I want to take it a step further here. It’s going to take it to a more troubling place. But I believe through that land lies a path to a more promise-filled way of life. (For the record I almost wrote “dark” place there instead of troubling until I caught myself as to how atrocious it would be to use that word in this context, so the infiltration runs deeply).

I don’t want this view to be seen as supplanting all of the other important perspectives on this topic. Just that I think the perspective I’m offering here is one I typically see missing.

So before we get there we need one more important piece of theological wisdom: souls worship god(s).

The soul is the energetic matrix, the deepest essence of a being. When souls become drawn to their source, they enter into devotion. Souls devote themselves, which means they worship God or rather gods. This point is an important one with significant ramifications, though we don’t typically talk in this manner so the implications aren’t very obvious to us in our secular world (yet the effects are very much real nonetheless).

It’s of course impossible to talk about gods in the United States with talking about The Bible. It is often incorrectly stated that the Bible teaches monotheism–i.e. the belief that there is but one God. The Bible however is very polytheistic insofar as it teaches there are many, many, many, many, many gods. Even the name of God in the Bible is a plural world (Elohim). The Bible’s argument instead is that one god of all those gods is worth worshipping, namely the God of Israel.*

The Bible then would more accurately be termed a text of monolatry rather than monotheism. The Greek word latreia means worship, adoration, and obedience–that’s where the “latry” comes from. So monolatry means worship (latreia) of one god as opposed to worship of one or many of the other gods around, whereas idolatry is worship of an idol, i.e. a false god.

The crucial piece to remember is that The Bible does not say false gods are unreal (in some ontological sense). The critique is far more subtle than that. It’s that the wrong god (who is nevertheless real) is being worshipped. gods that don’t actually exist don’t cause problems. gods that do exist but are harmful, when worshipped, now these gods are indeed profoundly destructive.

Here’s my supposition then:

The soul of white America worships one (or more) of such very real but very harmful false gods.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

In the Hebraic-Jewish understanding worship of a god meant total service to that god. There was a specifically cultic dimension of worship to be sure, what we would think of today as religion proper–different gods had different temples, different locales, different customs, and different priesthoods. But worship in the Jewish understanding is an integral process. Religion in this view is an entire way of life, not something one does for an hour on the weekend. Obedience or worship would specifically cover one’s cultic duties but also one’s ethics, relationships, sense of personhood and group identification (“we are the people who worship this god”), and so on. These would all be, in totality, one’s religion.

Given that totality, here’s the catch:

Different gods bring with them different energies and different worldviews.

The argument of the Bible, particularly the Book of Exodus, is that if you worship the wrong god you will have the wrong social order. And conversely if there is an unjust and unmerciful social order it must be because there is bad theology.

The equation would go:

wrong god = unjust social order

Pharaoh worshipped the wrong god and therefore enslaved the Hebrews. The right god (or at least a better god) freed the slaves.

Again it’s not that the gods worshipped are unreal. It’s not Scooby Doo. We meddling kids don’t pull off the masks of these supposed gods and jenkies we really find out all along it’s been the old caretaker of the children’s park.

These gods, these subtle energies-archetypes, these deities are real. And some of them are opposed to life. Some of them are evil. (Many are benevolent, but that’s not our focus for the moment.)

Secularism, as a philosophy that dominates our world, denies the truth of the subtle realm. It doesn’t stop the subtle realm however from being real or having effects. Secularism simply makes the subtle unconscious (which is very dangerous). The truth is obedience and worship is occurring whether or not one identifies as secular, religious, atheistic, agnostic, whatever. The labels actually are quite secondary. The primary thing is who or what is being worshipped and being given one’s obedience.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

I’ve always found that last sentence so strange–spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Shouldn’t heaven be free of evil? Well no. Not if we understand heavenly places to mean the subtle realms (as I do). Then there are forces of evil in the subtle (i.e. heavenly) realms, one of those forces being racism.

Now we are in a position to tie these various strands together. I argued (in my earlier piece) that white America has a kind of soul, a soul that is infected with the subtle illness of racism. In this piece I’ve argued further that souls worship gods and that worship means total obedience unto the god and that god’s energy.

Moreover, some gods are anti-life. Some gods are spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. To worship those gods is to serve those powers. Worship here meaning full spectrum worship. To give our money, our energy, our time, our allegiance, our bodies, our hearts, even our very souls to a false, anti-life god.

Further, the social order reflects the god (or gods) worshipped. The social order, according to the Bible, is the reflection of the gods worshipped. The social order then is the test of the dominant worship. In other words:

The institutions and structures of a society reflect the god or gods being worshipped.

Therefore, if as I’m suggesting, the soul of white America is worshipping a false god (or gods) then its institutions are corrupted at their very energetic level. The rise of prisons in the US would be the most obviously example–soul crushing places which are temples or churches built to a god who lives off the torture of others. But it goes well beyond prisons alone. They are only the most obvious example of what liberation theologians called social sin.

All of which means the soul of white America (broadly speaking) not only suffers the illness of racism, it’s also worshipping a false god. It’s worshipping an anti-life subtle energy/archetype or deity (or possibly deities). It worships an idol. The soul of white America (or more precisely, significant portions of it) has given its worship, its obedience, its devotion to a god of death and domination. The soul of white America has wedded itself in a perverted form of love to a loveless spiritual force of evil in the subtle heavenly places.

The Bible is very clear about what to do with demons, false gods, and idols: exorcise them.

Hence it’s time for a social exorcism.

The social conservative narrative forming that attempts to co-opt this massacre as an attack on religious liberty points precisely in this direction though not in the way those advocating that position imagine. Their attempt to hijack the narrative of the event is an evasive maneuver, attempting to hide the ugly truth lying at the heart of this all. There is a spiritual esoteric aspect to this story, but it’s not about white evangelical American Christians not being able to pray in public schools and therefore being similarly oppressed such that they are able to identify with those of murdered African Americans in the black church tradition.

There are different gods at war and different social orders representing those opposing gods. This obvious distinction gets confused in media because both groups theoretically worship the same Christian god, but in practice they do not.

The social order of white America is one with a terrible history: genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery and segregation, class-based violence, sexual degradation, global rapaciousness, and destruction of the biosphere.

Of course there were and are plenty of well-natured and well-meaning white Americans, as well as white Americans who actively opposed such realities. That’s not the point. We’re talking the collective soul. We’re talking its devotion, its obedience to a spiritual force of evil in the heavenly places.

Because, as the Biblical argument goes, we need to look at the social order. The social order is the expression of the god worshipped. The social order (and not anything else) is what tells us who really is the god or gods of our time. What the Letter to the Ephesians calls “the cosmic powers of the present darkness.”

Those words still apply today. After the massacre at Sandyhook Elementary, Catholic writer Gary Wills wrote an article calling gun culture in American “Our Moloch”.

Moloch was a god to whom devotees offered human child sacrifices, their own children in fact. Wills’ point, one of complete truth, is that America worships the gun god Moloch and therefore must sacrifice its children to him, since he is after all, a subtle energy-demonic god-evil spiritual force who requires the blood of children to survive. That was or more accurately is (since Moloch is clearly real) the cultic obligation due Moloch.

As long as Moloch is worshipped he will have his blood. He will demand payment in the form of innocent lives and he will get it. Until white America stops worshipping Moloch, legitimate gun regulations (much less the disarmament of the country) will never happen.

The Bible understands something very crucial when it comes to gods–namely they need us as much as we need them. The relationship is a two way street. We become devoted to a god but that god also becomes devoted to us. Our worship of the gods changes us, but our worship of the gods changes the gods themselves.**

Said more simply:

You become what you meditate on.

And if we meditate on death, that is what we become. Robert Oppenheimer knew this terrible truth; which is why when he saw the atomic bomb explode, a bomb he helped to create, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita:

“I have become death, destroyer of worlds.”

You become what you meditate on. We all do.

Which is why the only question really worth asking someone is: who do you worship? For that is what you will become.

The soul of white America worships Moloch; hence it has become his servant, his devotee, even his incarnation. Moloch is a parasitic god requiring the blood of children to survive. Moloch is an anti-life force, a kind of zombie, a dead reality still somehow in a quasi-state of non-dead yet non-living life requiring the consumption of truly living beings in order to continue to exist in this non-dead yet non-living state.

However, it gets worse, I believe Moloch is only one of the false idols worshipped by the soul of white America.

Another such god (or perhaps another facet of Moloch?) is the god of the white American South, the god of the Confederacy, that is the god of white domination. This is the god Dylann Ruff worshipped. In fact, he wore badges to show his loyalty (his latreia) to white colonialist Rhodesia.

The reason why no major US conservative political figure wants to acknowledge the racism underlying the terrorist attack in Charleston is because to do so would leave the entire edifice of their theological and social reality crumbling. To acknowledge the obvious reality that the attack was motivated by race would be to implicate their souls. It goes way deeper than revealing the flaws in their political ideology. It would be to confess a very stain at the core of their psyches.

After the end of the US Civil War, the Union Army occupied the lands of the former rebel confederate territory. There began perhaps the most radical social and political experiment in US history: Reconstruction. It was an attempt to dismantle the entire edifice of white supremacy upon which the South was built. It was an attempt to not simply end slavery but deconstruct the entire ideology on which it was built.

For many complex reasons that plan was abandoned and a bargain was struck with the devil–and given we’re talking subtle energetics, I mean quite possibly and quite literally the devil. That deal was to leave the South free of the occupation. From there the KKK filled the security void and reinstalled white power. The tragic irony being that the (Northern) US Army had to occupy the South once more a hundred years later in order to end segregation.

From the late 19th century on, an entire industry arose to attempt to “heal the wound of America” but that healing was only to take place between the white southerner and his white northerner “brother.” Formers slaves and their descendants were definitely not welcomed into that healing circle. Movies, novels, historical narratives, Civil War re-enactments all treat the antebellum South and the Confederacy as a beautiful but tragically doomed land. The ubiquitous Confederate flag throughout the South (and rural parts of the North, Midwest and Western US) is the most visible sign.
The nostalgia of Dixie and the land of cotton stirs much of the white soul (even those not from the South). The most virulent edges of it were dulled in the 1960s but many parts of it were left to remain. It was those that allowed Nixon, Reagan, and the entire conservative counterrevolution of the last 40+ years to flourish.

When Reconstruction was ended, The Confederacy, large parts of it anyway, was fused back into the soul of white America. It was a soul retrieval of the worst possible kind rather than the exorcism that was (and still is) so sorely needed. The Confederacy is a poltergeist, an entity attachment on the soul of white America one that needs to be exorcised.

How many US military bases are named after Confederate Generals? Generals who took up arms against the government, the same government who now has bases named for those rebellious leaders? A deal with the devil to bring back the South. And it worked in its perverse way: e.g. the dominance of the South in the current US military is well documented. Remember how I said the institutions themselves become means of the dissemination of the false god’s energy into the manifest world? It’s right there in the names.

Which is to say all of it is built upon worship of a false god. Whether it was the white American soul that first revived some dead or dying god and corrupted it to serve its purposes or whether that god was corrupt to begin with is hard to say. At this point, the relationship is a co-dependent one.

That evil force in the heavenly spheres, that white god of domination, had a devotee in Dylann Ruff. He shouted core theological beliefs of that god just prior to his act of terror: “you’re stealing our [white] women and taking over OUR country.”

And it is that god and all his minions that must be exorcised; all his demons, demigods, all his lieutenants, powers and principalities. The white soul of America has to confess its worship of this false god, repent, and detach itself. It needs to cut the cord to that parasitic god until that god disintegrates. The parasite cannot live without its host. If we stop feeding it, if we stop meditating on these gods of death, they will die out. But that will not be pretty. False gods are addicts; their parasitic tentacles reach deeply into the core of the white American soul. They will not go gently into that good night.

Since the soul we are speaking of here is collective and has impact on individual souls, it will require individuals of a high caliber to do the subtle energy exorcism work collectively. Prior to an exorcism, shamans, exorcists, and priests have to prepare themselves for what is to come. In all honesty, I think just about the only real remaining value to individual spiritual practice nowadays is to act as a kind of preparation for the collective exorcism rites we will need to perform together.

While my background is Christian and therefore I speak from the Biblical view of liberation and the Biblical cosmology, the closest parallel to what I’m arguing here that I’m aware of from the Buddhist tradition comes from my friend Darrin Drda whose re-imagined Buddhist cosmology and teaching in relation to the US as an imperial reality.

The key point, regardless of which language or system we want to reference, is that the evil subtle energetics be taken as real. Not so real as to be overwhelming or to create paranoia. Here The Biblical account offers hope that these false gods are not and need not be victorious. They can be exorcised. They can be energetically metabolized.

C.S. Lewis wisely said there were two mistakes when it came to evil: to underestimate it and to overestimate it.

To invoke the process of social exorcism is to take this issue very seriously and yet to create a stronger feeling of empowerment. Neither under nor overestimating its power.

Liberal religious types and secular individuals have ceded this territory because of the discomfort of talking about things like exorcisms. People might think you crazy for even contemplating such a thing. It leaves the truth of social exorcism to be perverted and corrupted to the ends of those who claim to use it to rid the world of their hated “other”, e.g. gays and lesbians. It’s also left the field wide open for the devotion to the false god(s), whether that devotion is conscious or not (the vast majority of which is definitely not).

I believe it’s time to change that.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

* Christians, as distinct from Jews, argue that the God of Israel was incarnate in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. While Muslims believe that same god, the god Al-Lah, perfected those earlier revelations with the final revelation to the Prophet Muhammad. Specific and important differences aside, all in all same god.

** Though this is not my focus here, for the theology-spirituality nerds out there, I’m making an argument for a post-metaphysical argument form of social exorcism.

21 Jun 2015 1 comment / READ MORE

Bliss: The Most Dangerous Spiritual State of All?

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Emotions, Mystics, Philosophy, Spirituality, The Soul

Awhile back I wrote a piece for the website Reality Sandwich entitled “Why Following Your Bliss is Bulls#@%.” I took a mostly (but not entirely) critical view of the now cliched saying to follow your bliss, originally from the great Joseph Campbell.

I’m not going to rehash that entire argument but there’s one section from that piece I want to expand on here. Namely what precisely is the spiritual state of bliss.

In the earlier piece I explored the confusion of Campbell’s understanding of bliss from the two most common meanings of the word, one emotional and one spiritual. Bliss being the English translation of the Sanskrit word ananda, as in Sat-Chit-Ananda (Being- Consciousness-Bliss). Both the emotional and the spiritual meaning of bliss are not what Campbell had in mind when he spoke of following your bliss. This difference in meaning has created a serious amount of confusion and misunderstanding.

When it comes to the emotional meaning of bliss, I wrote:

“Sometimes people will translate ananda into English as happiness, joy, or even elation. Joy, happiness, and elation are temporary emotional states (good ones no doubt!) but ananda they ain’t.* Ananda doesn’t come and go like happiness or joy. Happiness or joy exist in relation to other emotions like sadness, grief, fear, and anger. Ananda doesn’t have any such relations. There’s nothing to compare ananda to. Ananda is not like happiness which we know as different from sadness (and vice versa). Moreover, it’s possible to experience ananda while also experiencing an emotional state of joy or sadness, boredom or elation, fear or contentment.”

The problem then with advising people to follow their bliss is that if they understand bliss to be an emotional state, then they will be seeking an “emotional high.” They will become addicts in other words. This thinking massively pervades the personal growth and spirituality of much of North America (aka “bliss junkies”).

So having made clear that the emotional state of bliss is not something to be attached to, in this piece I want to explore the spiritual state of Bliss. I’ll explore why I think the spiritual state of bliss to be a very grace-filled experience but also a signicantly dangerous one. In fact it’s likely the most dangerous spiritual state known to humanity. I’m not being overly dramatic. In a very sober way, I mean it when I say bliss is very dangerous.

For reference: I’ll use Bliss capitalized to distinguish the spiritual state of Bliss from the more temporary emotional state of bliss (indicated by lowercase ‘b’ bliss).

Here’s what I wrote in my earlier piece about the spiritual meaning of Ananda (Bliss):

Ananda is the energetic state of awakening. It’s the energetic space that comes from the realization of pure release in the state of utter liberation.

Now these are just words. Without the experience of actual Bliss the words are by themselves meaningless. Even with the experience of Bliss those words are far from perfect but at least work I believe as a beginning entry point to make sense of Bliss.

I’m going to unpack this statement and show why Bliss is so powerful but also at its heart very ambiguous. I’ll conclude with some thoughts on how to set a proper context for the integration of Bliss as an element of an overall human spiritual life. An element, not the element. I want to stress that last point–Bliss should be a part of an overall spiritual life it should not become the final and most important part of a spiritual life.

Saying “Follow Your Bliss” and understanding Bliss as a spiritual state creates its own set of problems–namely the bias towards Bliss as the final, most important form of spiritual awakening. Bliss is very important. Bliss IS NOT however the final and most important spiritual realization.

I’m interested then in exploring Bliss and figuring out a balanced view of its truths and limitations and how best to approach it in order that we can receive the truths and graces of Bliss and not become enmeshed in its limitations and potential shadow sides.

The English language on this point is really unhelpful. I want to describe spiritual experiences and interpretations that are my own but by having to speak of ‘my experience’ it carries a strong sense of personal ownership that isn’t correct in this context. For in Bliss, the normal sense of “I” or “me” isn’t present such that “I” could claim to have interpretations or understandings of that experience. “I” wasn’t even there (I in the normal self-sense that is).

That being said, I don’t also want to give the impression that my experience and interpretation is the final and complete one for all time and places. So I do need to claim some personal responsibility for the interpretations without it becoming an avaricious ownership kind of thing, like Gollum with the Ring of Power. This isn’t my precious.

Still with all that being said, I also am NOT advocating a view of “everybody’s got their own experience, so to each their own.” I do think what I’m proposing, while not the final ultimate interpretation of Bliss, is nevertheless A right and valid interpretation of Bliss. My interpretation is not THE final right and valid interpretation of Bliss, but there are many other interpretations of Bliss that I find wrong or misguided. So I am drawing some clear lines here.

As we proceed, I hope it’s clear I’m trying to tightrope walk with this one.

The only other prefatory comment to add is that my experience of Bliss is, to use some technical language, endogenic. That means it’s an experience internally generated, i.e. through spiritual practice like meditation. In contrast, there are people who experience Bliss through exogenic means, for example by ingesting mushrooms or taking an acid trip. I don’t have any experience in that realm so I can’t speak to it.

With all those provisos, back then to my working definition of Bliss:

Ananda [Bliss] is the energetic state of awakening. It’s the energetic space that comes from the realization of pure release in the state of utter liberation.

Breaking down that definition there’s three component parts:

Energetic space/state
Pure Release
Utter Liberation

In the actual experience of Bliss those three can’t be separated from each other, but for the purposes of teasing out the experience, we can differentiate them, at least conceptually.

Bliss is a spiritual state of Burning Fire. In Bliss it is as if the world melts into Liquid Brilliance. It is as if there is an electrical charge. There’s a dynamism, a vitality, an energetic “pow”.

Pure Release
Bliss is Aloneness. Bliss is solitude in a desert oasis at night illumined by fire.

Utter Liberation
In Bliss one is freed even from having to be free. One is freed from all constructs, including “good” ones like Truth, Freedom, Enlightenment, Goodness. It’s a Liberation from Liberation. In Bliss, stupidity as well as intelligence are Liberated. Confusion and Clarity are seen as two sides of one coin. Heaven and Hell, Nirvana and Samsara, are just forms of Bliss.

Bliss is an Undertow. It’s a Current. It pulls one out to sea. It’s an alluring pull. It’s as if Bliss opens up the pores on my skin. In the space of Bliss, everything else starts to melt away. I find myself simply taken away in the current. This current however has no destination. It’s just the experience of being pulled out to sea, Infinitely, Indefinitely, Eternally. No destination, no goal, no purpose, other than the ride itself.

In the space of Bliss, everything that arises is just gently poured in to the sea. It could be the most creative thought in the world, a most painful memory, a very pleasurable sensation, even seemingly fundamental aspects of my identity, it doesn’t matter. They all arise and simply get buried in the Sea of Bliss. Everything is left in the Desert Oasis of Bliss.

Put all three of these aspects together and you have the spiritual state of Bliss. Because Bliss so charged and because it takes out beyond all categories, all conceptions, all ways of splitting the world into right and wrong, it is very powerful. It is also however, for all the exact same reasons, potentially dangerous.

The Dark Sides of Bliss

Now there are significant dangers associated with each of those three elements. I hear spiritual teachers (or students) often extol the virtues of Bliss, but I hear less often an honest assessment of the dangers involved. I think it’s best to squarely face the dangers and bring them right out into the open.

Danger #1: Addictions, Trauma, and Psychological Shadow

The most obvious danger is the danger for all spiritual states–namely spiritual bypassing. Bliss can and is used as an escape for those suffering from addictions, traumas, mental illness, emotional disease, and/or soul ailments. As a spiritual state, Bliss is free from pain, terror, turmoil, confusion, or trauma. That is a gift of the state but also potentially a curse. Traumas, addictions, and nervous system disturbance are endemic within our culture. PTSD is not only for people who’ve been to war and addiction is not only for people going to 12 Step meetings for alcohol or drug abuse.

In that context, spirituality can then become a siren song, calling us wounded beings to an easy escape from dealing with our challenges on the level which they exist. For example, if you have an emotional problem, then you need to deal with it on the emotional level of your being. Having a spiritual realization will temporarily move you into a different space where the emotional problem doesn’t arise in the first place. That’s a great solution if you could hold that spiritual state for every moment for the rest of your life (which frankly is more or less the advice of classical spiritual teachers btw).

Assuming however you can’t hold that state in the entirely of your being for every waking moment of the rest of your existence (a good assumption btw!), then when the spiritual state recedes, the emotional problem will return. This return of the emotional problem can leave a sense of despair in the practitioner. They’ve struggled with something, then it goes away, now it’s back, so not surprisingly their initial response is to try to return immediately to the place where it doesn’t hurt. Worse still, the emotional problem (or addiction or trauma) can come back charged with spiritual energy. With Bliss this is doubly the case given how strongly energetic (in some cases even erotic) the experience is. A person with a trauma pattern can easily spin out from an injection of Bliss–i.e. they can experience a dissociative state. This isn’t per se a fault of Bliss but we live a pervasively traumatized society. The more we study about trauma the more we realize it’s not something relegated only to people in terribly violent accidents and the like. It’s a much more common experience. Consequently anyone teaching Bliss needs to be very aware of the risks involved and screen accordingly.

Danger #2 Beyond Good and Evil

This one is straightforward. Bliss is definitely beyond our human conceptions of good and evil. It is deeply freeing to be released from our subtle bindings of wanting to be good people. But when Bliss is idealized as the final summit of spiritual perfection (as it often is) then we have a serious issue on our hands. Bliss does not give any indication about ethical behavior one way or another. Bliss is not interested in such matters. Not at all. In the most extreme cases, this can led a human being to claim that they are beyond good and evil. Charlie Manson made just such a claim btw. A person who has experienced Bliss can (mis)interpret the experience to mean that they exist in what is known as a “state of exemption”–i.e. they don’t believe the rules of being a good human being apply to them. Abuse by spiritual teachers, cultism and the like all flow from this basic error.

Danger #3 No Purpose

This element is also quite clear. Not only does the spiritual state of Bliss have no orientation to right or wrong, it has no orientation to purpose. It has no point. It has no direction or aim. This can be radically destabilizing and disorienting for the realizer. Again, if Bliss is articulated as the final, ultimate point of spiritual realization (of a human life even), which in some cases it is, then the final point is pointless. With Bliss there’s the strong possibility of wanting to flee or abandon the world to its own demise and suffering, while one simply “Blisses Out.” Here again is the problem of uncritically advocating “Following Your Bliss.”

The spiritual state of Bliss is not “your” Bliss or “my” Bliss or “anyone’s” Bliss. Bliss SIMPLY IS. It cannot be owned. Further, it goes nowhere, hence it cannot be “followed”. Only something with direction, aim, or purpose can be followed. Bliss has no aim, purpose, or direction. The only way one could “follow” the spiritual state of Bliss is by becoming overly fixated or even addicted to the state. And this, like all addictions, is an unhealthy response to unhealed trauma.

The Solution

Given the severity of these dangers associated with Bliss maybe Bliss should be abandoned altogether? While I can sympathize with that idea, I don’t believe it’s the right choice. There is a reason the Indian tradition valued Bliss so highly by naming it as one of its triad of spiritual realization. Bliss has something to teach us about being human that nothing else can. Bliss has an utterly unique wisdom associated with it. If we deny Bliss altogether we lose access to that very important truth of our humanity. Bliss is part of us whether we acknowledge it or not. The only choice is whether we make Bliss a conscious, integrated aspect of our human existence or not. If we choose not, then we will suffer the consequences of not owning this aspect of ourselves. In that case, Bliss won’t go away it will simply express itself in unconscious, negative forms. Unconscious Bliss leads us forever seeking for some release elsewhere and forever suffering right where we are.

Therefore, the question we needing be asking is: how can we incorporate the beauty of Bliss without its dark sides taking over? 

The way to responsibly work with Bliss involves two main pieces.

1. Proper Preparation
Teachers should be open and honest with students about the dangers of bliss. Students should not be introduced to Bliss until they have some capacity to properly regulate their nervous system, understand their emotions and relate to them in a healthy fashion, as well as having learned how to work with their shadow. They will also have to be introduced to other (somewhat safer) spiritual states first, like Peacefulness, Presence, Awakened Heart and so on. Only then are they ready to be introduced to Bliss.

Placing Bliss Within The Soul

Of all the controversial statements I’ve made so far in this post, perhaps this is most controversial. This site is dedicated to The Soul. It’s my contention that it is our nature as Soul that is the proper container of a human incarnation. It is The Soul, in other words, that is the proper context for integration of our spiritual nature. (For a little more on soul versus spirit see here and here.)

In very very broad strokes, spiritual enlightenment teachings of all varieties almost always advocate that our spiritual nature is the proper context for us to live as awakened beings. Basically we should be and live from our spiritual nature all the time and that’s the “meta-solution” to all of our suffering.

I get the argument but just look at the term: spirit-ual teachings. The bias is right there in the name. So it’s not surprising spiritual teachings advocate being our spiritual nature. I define our spiritual nature as that which is universal and the same for all of us. Bliss is one expression, one state of our spiritual nature.

Spiritual teachings often divide the human up into simply two parts: the ego (bad) and the spirit (good). The path then is very simply to deny, crucify, transcend, or in some way annihilate the ego in order to be spiritually awake. When spiritual teaching is set up as one part bad (e.g. the ego) and one part good (spirit), then inevitably the whole of the teaching is about how to get out of the bad and into the good and once having gotten into the good how to stay in the good permanently.

I used to practice this way for years. I don’t agree any longer with that viewpoint. In that regard, I’m standing athwart much of spirituality yelling ‘Stop!’ (as William Buckley once famously said in an extremely different context).

I argue instead we should see our Soul–i.e. our singular, distinct manifestation and expression of The Universal–as the proper vessel or vehicle for living a fully human and fully divine life. What this means practically is that the spiritual aspects of us need to be incorporated into our Soul. Whereas in the history of spirituality most spirituality draws the biggest circle being Spirit and believing the Soul should fit inside Spirit. I’m advocating a reversal of the ordering (Spirit fits inside Soul).

Where spirituality would advocate No Boundaries, Soul-teaching advocates Sovereignty–the space where each Soul in an empowered way draws a sacred boundary around itself and incorporates and integrates all aspects of itself in a fully enfleshed manner. All aspects. Spiritual, psychological, emotional, etc.

So in other words, let’s imagine you experience the spiritual state of Bliss through meditation. Then you (I argue) should identify with your Soul. The Soul sets a proper container and context for Bliss to enter in and be welcomed. Bliss is not the final voice but simply now a Voice. Bliss is now “freed up by being limited” (in the words of Ken Wilber). Bliss is freed up to offer its wisdom without bringing in its wake all the baggage and dangers associated with it. These dangers largely occur when we look to Bliss to solve the problem of being human (which it doesn’t). When Bliss is not set up to solve a problem or be our salvation then it works quite well. It’s a profoundly amazing state and aspect of our being. But Bliss needs to held by the Soul–the aspect of us that does have a sense of purpose, of proper discernment (right/wrong), and doesn’t seek to route around or bypass any difficulties on any levels of our being.

What Joseph Campbell actually meant by Bliss was the Soul. So it turns out in the end he was right–we should Follow Our Bliss, i..e we should Follow the inherent impulses and charges of The Soul. But that is not what people hear when they hear the word Bliss. I think Campbell should have chosen a different word to describe the inherent drives and pull of The Soul than Bliss. What Campbell meant by bliss is neither a temporary emotional state of the personality nor is it the Bliss of our spiritual nature. I think we should leave Bliss to be what it is (a spiritual state of energetic awakening beyond all categories) and find a different word to describe the pull of our Soul.

Both are very important but they are very different and using the same term to describe both causes category errors and unnecessary pain and suffering for spiritual practitioners.

Coda: Special Note on Aurobindo

The great Indian realizer Sri Aurobindo gave an alternative interpretation to Ananda. He saw Ananda as the purposeful movement into incarnate reality of the spiritual. Aurobindo, as a consequence, was very critical of the classic Vedanta tradition of awakening represented by figures like Shankara or Ramana Maharshi. My experience of Bliss is much more in the Vedanta lineage. I do however believe Aurobindo was correct that there is a Creative or Incarnating Impulse. What some call an Evolutionary or Creative or God Impulse. For me this Evolutionary or Creative Impulse is actually a new revelation or insight. Where for Aurobindo the Incarnating Nature of Bliss was the original insight of the Indian lineage (he cited the ancient Indian texts the Vedas to support his claim).

I understand Aurobindo’s desire to ground his experience and teaching in his own lineage and his interpretation of the Vedas and the Upanishads is quite revolutionary in that regard. But I think he was actually talking about a new insight. There are some points of contact between his view and the ancient one–the connection is through the energetic pulsation of Bliss. But in the Aurobindian line that pulsation has desire to express and is existing within a frame of spiritual evolution, i.e. the Descent of Supermind, Supermind being the first expression of Sat-Chit-Ananda. In other words, I think Aurobindo (along with others) really discovered/co-constructed a 4th term to Being-Consciousness-Bliss. It would be for Aurobdino (as I see it) something more like:


In my understanding then there is room for both the Vedanta and the Aurobindian schools of realization and interpretation. The Vedanta tradition connecting more with the first three and the Aurobindian tradition the fourth.

* There is a way to speak of Joy in a spiritual sense as a deep underlying ease and sense of blessedness of simply being alive. Joy, in this understanding, is the Feeling of Being Herself. This view is totally valid but I still argue it is different from the state of Ananda, which is I think actually correctly translated into English as Bliss. The differentiation from Joy and Bliss is already there in the difference between Sat (Being) and Ananda (Bliss). Trying to translate Ananda into Joy conflates Sat and Ananda, which are intimately tied into one another but nevertheless are distinct.

17 May 2015 2 comments / READ MORE

Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Mystics, Spirituality

Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, has been making waves recently with his new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. In it Harris talks openly about his meditation practice and spiritual experience–something he has done before but doesn’t seem to have gained as much interest or notice as it has now. (Harris is also in the news recently for his statements on Islam, but I’m not going to focus on those here.)

The video above begins with Harris making an important point about the nature of consciousness. Contrary to most philosophy and science (particularly in North America), Harris argues that human consciousness can’t be reduced to states of the brain. Harris mentions a few other philosophers who have made similar arguments recently, e.g. David Chalmers, John Searle, and Thomas Nagel. In so doing Harris adds his voice to the conversation and places himself squarely on the minority side of the debate within atheism and the wider secular philosophical world.

The basic premise here is that the felt sense of having an inner world complete with thoughts, emotions, and sensations can’t be reduced solely to material events (e.g. changes in neurons or brain states). As Harris points out the best science can do is correlate certain brain states with states of consciousness, states like anger, fear, sadness, or calm meditative repose. There’s a strong interest in mapping brain states for meditators–it’s important research but it’s research is about correlation not causation, a point too often missed in the literature itself, not to mention in wider public discourse. As Harris correctly notes we still have to trust the reported subjective experiences of individuals because no matter how many physical experiments a scientist may do, none of them gain access to the inner world of 1st person, subjective experience. The methods of science are 3rd person, objective measurements, whereas the inner world is one of 1st person, subjective experience.

Therefore, in order to gain individual access to the data of 1st person, inner, subjective experience one has to take up some an inner practice like meditation, describing one’s feelings, and the like. Human subjectivity is qualitative not quantitative.

So far so good. It’s a sad commentary on the status of Western philosophy that Harris’ point is seen as controversial. It should be an absolute no brainer (bad pun not intended), but unfortunately it’s actually a hugely disputed point. So hats off to Harris for making this point in a straightforward, clear manner.

This takes us up to the 2:50 mark in the video. And here’s where the problems arise.

Harris states that he doesn’t believe that examining subjective consciousness gives humans any insight into non-scientific matters or that consciousness exists separate from the brain (i.e. life after death). He then states that he does hold that the self or the ego-I sense is an illusion. His point is that learning through meditation that the self is an illusion only teaches us about human subjectivity–nothing more, nothing less.

In other words, Harris is arguing that through certain practices (e.g. mindfulness meditation) the sense of being a separate egoic self inside the body somewhere (often the head) can be dissolved and one simply is the consciousness experience of thoughts, sensations, emotions, experiences. In sum, there is no experiencer separate from those phenomena.

The argument is subtle and multi-faceted. Unfortunately Harris glides over a number of very controversial points–points I now would like to flesh out.

The first piece of information to know is that Harris studied vipassana (insight or mindfulness) Buddhist meditation. That ends up being a really important piece of background context for this discussion.

Vipassana has its roots in the earliest forms of Buddhism, perhaps going back directly to the historical Buddha himself–at least in substantial ways. The historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) seemed to take a very agnostic or perhaps ignoring position relative to metaphysical questions. He simply bracketed them out. He was a kind of spiritual realist. The Buddha taught very simply to inquire into the nature of the subjective experience such that it eventually dropped away in the state of nirvana. This is the Buddhist teaching of no-self. In other words there is no substantial separate self and that to hold to that otherwise illusory self sense is to invite pain and suffering given that life is nothing but change and impermanence. The Buddha did not concern himself with questions of cosmic origins or gods or goddesses or heavens or hells. He found those issues a distraction from the more pressing, existential question of suffering. Therefore whenever asked such questions he always simply pointed back to present experience.

Therefore, at least in early Buddhism, the realization of nirvana was not meant to give insight into a wider story of cosmic origins or meaning.

That view is a historically legitimate one. It is the foundation of the Buddhist path. All later forms of Buddhism, even ones that invoke gurus, mantras, and cosmic Buddhas do so under the explicit teaching that such images are images of selfless Buddha Nature, that they are all are empty of metaphysically separate, substantial reality.

It needs to be said however that this framework makes Buddhism somewhat unique within the mystical traditions of humanity. Many other spiritual and mystical traditions realize the experience of the self-dropping but they understand the experience and the implications of that experience very differently.

Traditions like Kabbalah (mystical Judaism), Vedanta Hinduism, mystical Christianity, and Sufism (mystical Islam). All of them in their nondual variants teach that the separate self-sense can drop just as in Buddhism. In these traditions, when the separate self sense drops one identifies with all reality very much as in Zen or Mahamudra Buddhism. However in these others traditions, all the reality that one identifies with is none other than the manifestation of God. What Jesus called the kingdom of heaven on earth. Whereas of course in Buddhism there is no God.

As one teacher described it (quite brilliantly in my opinion), Buddhism is the tradition of zero and Vedanta is the tradition of one (you can also add Kabbalah, Sufism, mystical Christianity to Vedanta as in the one category). What is the same is that neither teaches duality. Both zero and one are not-two. But zero and one are distinct from each other.

The reason I share all that is that Sam Harris is from the Buddhist tradition and therefore comes from a ‘zero school’ of contemplative interpretation. As it goes that is a perfectly legitimate school of interpretation. It’s not one I happen to belong to but it is a time-honored one with a profound lineage that I respect and admire profoundly.

But it needs to be said the Buddhist view is a point of view on the question of the relationship of mystical experience to questions of metaphysical and cosmic origins. And, as stated earlier, it’s actually in the minority when it comes to that question. Minority doesn’t mean inherently wrong of course, it just means minority. But you won’t hear that in the Harris version of events because it would undermine his argument for a scientific and purely rational spirituality with its hidden Buddhist-bias.

All of those other traditions like Vedanta and Kabbalah–with their roots in shamanism–argue that there are in fact spiritual realities of differing orders and realities. And that just like one can experience the dropping of self through certain meditation practices, one can through other types of spiritual practice (e.g. prayer, shamanic journeying) experience and commune with these spiritual realities.

Harris, however, blithely waves away the entire rest of the mystical traditions with a brief wave of his hand (calling such views “spooky”). Traditions that are just as old, and in some cases, older than Buddhism.

There’s no way to prove that traditions like Vedanta, Kabbalah, or Sufism are wrong to extrapolate from their experiences to wider possibilities and questions. Harris’ answer is less a scientific proposition so much as a philosophical position from his Buddhist background. Just so, we can’t prove Buddhism is wrong as to its view–namely that we can’t and shouldn’t extrapolate from mystical experience into wider cosmic and metaphysical questions.

Harris wants to create what he calls a scientific pursuit of contemplation but he wants to do so under Buddhist principles. He wants to square that circle by arguing that his viewpoint isn’t Buddhist rather it’s scientific. But all he did there was take a Buddhist perspective, ignore all the other traditions of mystical interpretation, and then call it scientific.

Even though Harris seems to be going way out on a limb by advocating for the irreducibility of human subjective consciousness, he really isn’t straying that far from the scientific fold. He’s still fundamentally arguing that our understanding of the real is set by science. And science (or really the metaphysical philosophy backing science) is that only things that science can study and explain are real. So science sets the standard of the real and then he can use certain Buddhist practices and try to strip them of their Buddhist flavor and swallow them up into a science based form of contemplation.

But here’s the core problem–Harris doesn’t really understand the fullness of the scientific process. In Harris’ articulation there’s basically experimentation and then evidence leading to the codification of a community of the learned/adequate. So when it comes to his proposed science of contemplation, Harris says there’s a practice (say mindfulness meditation), then the experience (in this case identifying with all experience in the moment), which tells us something about the nature of human consciousness (only).

Except–and this a big except–in the scientific process there’s a movement between experience and social confirmation: interpretation. In a classic scientific process, one has a hypothesis and undertakes an experiment to test the hypothesis, gathers the data, and then the data has to be interpreted before it is decided whether the experiment has confirmed or disconfirmed the hypothesis. In the scientific community interpretation involves placing one’s research within the existing models, theories, and frameworks necessary to make meaningful sense of the data.

For example, if one is studying fossils, then the fossils one discovers have to be placed within the theory of evolution by natural selection. Outside that theory, individuals fossils are just individual fossils. Without evolution by natural selection there’s no context within which to put them to make sense of them and how they relate to the wider questions of anatomy, speciation, and biological life.

When it comes to Harris’ proposed science of contemplation, he’s completely blind to the moment of interpretation. It’s not that his work bypass interpretation. Quite the opposite. His writings are soaked in interpretation. He simply isn’t conscious of the fact. Or worse he is conscious of it and is purposefully hiding his true intentions. Sometimes it’s tough to tell but overall I think the generous read is that it’s the former not the latter.

Action leads to experience which is then interpreted/framed, and then confirms/disconfirms the original hunch.

When it comes to mysticism, one undertakes a practice, say meditation. Then as Harris says there is the experience of being experience itself.

And then there is interpretation–this is the key element and the one Harris simply tries to glide over under the cover of being scientific, rational, and logical.

His interpretation is that the self is an illusion. His interpretation is that such experience does not give insight into matters not studied by mainstream science.

Those are perfectly valid interpretations. They might be right. They might also be partial and limited in their outlook. But for Harris to acknowledge those as interpretations would wreck his entire project. Such an admission would radically circumscribe his aims. He could still make that argument. He would simply have to be honest about the ways in which they are based on interpretive judgments rather than scientific truth. He could do his best to persuade other people that his Buddhist-influenced interpretation is the correct interpretive scheme. But he couldn’t definitely prove his interpretative scheme in the same way one can prove say Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion (themselves an interpretation of data) because, as Harris argued from the beginning, consciousness is inherently subjective not objective.

There is no way to get at consciousness except through the testimony of practitioners and there’s a long history (as well as contemporary advocates) of such individuals arguing that their experience is an experience of a wider set of possibilities than those studied by science.

If one holds the philosophical position (as Harris does) that science is the sole arbiter of truth in our society then fine. That’s a philosophical judgment. It’s an interpretation. It’s a worldview or perspective.
Many individuals, including many very intelligent ones, have made such arguments throughout history, as well as presently. The rationale for the view is straightforward.

It is however a philosophical judgment. It’s not itself scientific. It’s philosophical. As a philosophical best guess and value-laden perspective, it doesn’t prove that realities not studied by science (especially ones unable to be studied by science) are not real. It simply proves that they have no scientific validity since they can’t be studied by science.

But the argument behind all of this is whether science is really the sole arbiter of truth. For Harris it is and as a consequence he interprets his spiritual experience through a lens and a framework meant to make spirituality “rational”. (Since in Harris‘ mind, rationality is conflated with science).

Atheists have mystical experiences all the time. They will interpret them according to their atheist philosophical persuasion. Famed staunch atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer wrote about his mystical experience through his materialist atheist worldview.

The fly in the ointment then for Harris is interpretation.

Harris says the self is an illusion. But this isn’t always true if we’re simply sticking to the pure data of inner subjective experience. It would be more accurate to say that in many forms of human subjective experience there is a self (or ego) and in other forms (e.g. nirvana) there isn’t. That’s the pure phenomenology of it.*

The technical term for what Harris is up to is hermeneutics, i.e. the study of human meaning-making, discourse, and interpretation. As I argued earlier, science has its own hermeneutics–the way it makes meaning out of data. And so do the contemplative traditions. Harris is doing hermeneutics. He’s simply doing it a very unconscious way.

When you really grasp that hermeneutics, meaning-making is intrinsic to life itself–and here contemplation is just one form of living–you’re really headed down a very interesting rabbit role.

To wit, the deeper mindf#@! of all of this is that the kind of spiritual practice one undertakes and the interpretive framework one brings to one’s spiritual practice subtly shapes the content of one’s mystical experience. So on one level I’ve been writing as if Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have the same mystical experiences. In a way yes. In another way no. (Remember this metaphor of Buddhism as a zero experience and the other traditions as a ‘one’ experience. Both are non-dual but they are distinct from each other in subtle ways).

Let me give an example. For a period of time I became very drawn to Sufi mysticism. I began to read Sufis and follow some of the practices they outlined. As I did so I began to have classically Islamic subtle mystical experiences. Now in Islam of course there are no icons of God (as in Judaism). God isn’t to be depicted. Consequently in my Islamic mystical experiences, I never saw an image of God because the context of Islamic theology and practice would not allow such an experience to occur. It would violate a central tenet of the religion.

In Christianity however one can have images of God (at least in most forms of Christianity, including The Roman Catholicism of my upbringing). For the majority of my path I practiced as a Christian and therefore when I had some subtle Christian mystical experiences I did see visionary images of The Trinity, angels, the saints, Mary, and so on. Those were all allowed within the interpretative frame of Catholic Christianity.

Is Christianity right and Islam wrong? Is Islam right and Christianity wrong?

Neither is right or wrong (or both are right, just distinct). They are both paths co-created in part by the traditions themselves. They do hold deeply commonalities or points of resonance–both sets of experiences involved intense light, visionary modes of being, dream-like qualities, but one revealed images for God and one didn’t And for the record, if one practices deity yoga in Tibetan Buddhism one sees subtle imagery of Buddhas. Because Tibetan Buddhism like Catholic Christianity is an iconographic tradition. Whereas in vipassana Buddhism there aren’t subtle visualizations so typically one doesn’t experience such things.

In other words, the spiritual practice and the context/interpretation of the practice radically shapes and moulds what kinds of spiritual experiences one can and can’t have.

In other other words, the experience of no-self arises from a context of mindfulness meditation and accompanying Buddhist (largely Theravadin) interpretation. The science Harris points to as supporting those views is irrelevant. People who undertake mystical practice within a theistic religious setting have correlated neurological process as well (see Andrew Newberg). The neuroscience doesn’t have anyway to adjudicate the various meditative processes nor the interpretive schemes that underlie them. As Harris said at the beginning, science can only correlate subjective experience.

Again I’m not saying therefore vipassana meditation and no-self Buddhist interpretation is wrong. It simply contextualizes it. Consequently, if Sam Harris wants to create a spiritual practice within the bounds set by a Western philosophical framework that sees science as the epistemological ground of truth that’s perfectly fine. I don’t come from that tradition but I think a Spiritual Humanism with a strong meditative mindfulness practice is a good thing in the world. It’s only however one variation of the spiritual path. Personally, I think it’s a pretty limited one in a number of ways but as it stands it would be a valid approach. Just not the only and only valid approach.

I titled this piece Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit. I hope it’s clear by now that I’m not saying Buddhism is BS. I’m saying Harris’ project of trying to create a secular contemplative science of spirituality out of Buddhist principles without calling it Buddhist is BS. I think trying to reduce contemplation to science betrays a naive philosophical perspective whereby science is the one and only way in which we come to knowledge.

I will say that Harris, to his credit, is completely up front about his aims. But honest though it may be, his views are deeply flawed. For example, in this video, Harris argues we should de-Buddhize mindfulness teachings because to identify with any one tradition (including Buddhism) is to promote sectarianism.

Actually it’s Harris whose being the sectarian by taking one tradition (vipassana Buddhism) and seeking to enforce it as the absolute truth upon all dissenting views in an attempt to wipe all the others out. That he’s doing so under the guise of being scientific just adds more ideological fuel to his fire. It allows him to claim his irrational view as a rational one.

Harris’ simplistic belief that a person identifying with one religion is inherently sectarian lies at the core of this massive blind spot in his own interpretation and reasoning. A blind spot that shows up as him doing the very thing to others that he says he’s out to protect against.

Harris is trying to hide what is a philosophical (even really a theological) interpretation under the cover of being scientific. It’s a rhetorical power move in other words. In philosophical terms, it’s a hidden metaphysics. I’m not against metaphysics by the way. In fact I think metaphysics is inevitable. What I am deeply opposed to is hidden, unconscious metaphysics.

I propose that Harris should instead see that the view is he’s advocating sets a framework, context, and setting for his own spiritual pursuits. He is in part constructing a path rather than metaphysically describing the true path. Instead of seeking to rid the world of sectarianism (by creating only one sect and thereby being a sectarian par excellence), Harris would do better, I believe, to find ways to create common goals through which various spiritual paths could ascribe and work towards together, though coming from different spiritual viewpoints (not opposed, not combative, simply different). Harris’ earlier work on moral goods and multiple diverse ways to those moral goods could be very helpful in that regard. We could propose standards of discourse, interaction, ethics, and behavior across the traditions that need to be held to and then leave various traditions free to develop their own worlds in the way they see fit.

Coda: On the no science of no self

Science doesn’t prove that there is no self. Harris argues that the subjective experience of no self is supported by neuroscience because there’s no specific place in the brain (or wherever) that would correlate with being an individuated locus of consciousness. But Harris fundamentally misunderstands the subjective experience of the ego. As Harris began the video, science can at best correlate with subjective experience. The ego or self is simply the subjective feeling of being an individual human biological organism, hence the physical correlate to the ego is the processes and pathways described by neuroscience and human biology as a whole.

In other words, if we ever check in with a person who describes their inner subjective experience as being one of a separate individual, the physical correlate of that state is the entire of the biological organism at that moment, including but not limited to the brain.

So yet again the point is that science does not prove vipassana-style Buddhism. And Vipassana-style Buddhism is not correlated with contemporary neuroscience.

* I would also add that there are states where the self arises and is simply transparent rather than made illusory. This I believe is a position deeper even than the one of saying there is no self. For me that is a deeper form of contemplation/nonduality than the one advocated by Harris. But again that is a judgment and I’m open to that debate as it is a controversial point within contemplative mystical schools.

16 Oct 2014 26 comments / READ MORE

Against High Vibrations: A Critique of New Age Spirituality

If you’ve ever read any self-help books or attended any personal development workshops or gone to any number of spiritual retreats you’ll very likely have come across the idea of maintaining a high vibration. I hear it all the time.

A quick Google search of high vibration brought up a slew of articles about what is a high vibration, why it’s important to have it, and what you can do to raise yours.

This teaching lies at the heart of almost, if not, all New Age spirituality, as well as various traditions influenced by New Age thinking–which increasingly is a wide range of spiritual teaching.

Of course as long as there is an idea of high vibrations, then inevitably there must low vibrations. You can’t have high without low and low without high. In this specific context the crucial point is that high vibrations are judged to be good, while low vibrations are bad.

All seems straightforward and obvious–we want to maintain a positive outlook, we want to feel good, and it’s a problem to stay mired in a negative outlook on life.

Simple, obvious right?

Well it may be a simple idea to grasp, it may even seem at first glance to be an obviously intelligent idea, but I’m going to argue it contains serious flaws. In particular I’ll focus on the way in which a high vibration teaching does significant damage to our ability to work with our emotions in a wise manner.

To preview the argument:

The central problem with a the notion of high vibrations is that it equates certain emotions with high vibration and therefore being positive. As a result, others emotions are seen as low vibration and therefore negative. High vibration easily elides into feeling good and low vibration easily turns out into feeling badly. That initial mistake opens the floodgates to numerous other consequential mistakes.


Here’s a classic example of this teaching from the spiritual writer David Hawkins.* Some version like this can be found throughout any number of New Age and New Thought writings. (I just find this one a really powerful and simple demonstration of the view).

You can see shame, guilt, apathy, grief, fear, anger are all in the negative category. Hawkins classifies these emotions as negative and of a low vibratory nature. Therefore the recommendation is to move out of such emotions into states of peace, joy, love, acceptance, and so on.

Again that all seems pretty logical–better to be joyful and peaceful than sorrowful or fearful right?

Not so fast.

Here’s what I see as fundamentally wrong about this approach–unconscious grief, shame, anger, and fear are definitely destructive. Unhealthy forms of grief, shame, anger, and fear are definitely destructive. But by qualifying these emotions with the words unconscious and unhealthy, we leave open the possibility that there is a conscious and healthy form of grief, shame, anger, and fear. In this simplistic binary system of high and low there is no ability to distinguish between different expressions of emotion–there’s no nuance or subtlety. Each emotion gets put into a good or bad category rather than seeing light and shadow sides to each emotion.

Just for the record, unhealthy and unconscious forms of happiness, peace, and acceptance are also really bad for you. For example, what if I maintain a peace at all costs attitude? What if I try to play peacemaker between two friends arguing and in so doing I actually end up hurting one of them? Am I supposed to accept prejudice? Should I be accepting of unethical behavior towards myself or others?

Hawkins’ schema is off because it categorizes emotions into positive or negative, into high or low, into good or bad. This dualism is seriously flawed and it dominates so much contemporary spirituality in more explicit forms as well as plenty of implicit ones.

This scale (intentionally or otherwise) compares the negative, unhealthy versions of one set of emotions–grief, fear, shame, anger–with the positive, healthy versions of another set–joy, love, peacefulness, etc. The game is rigged from the get go. It’s a game that ends up causing a lot well-meaning but naive spiritual seekers extraordinary amounts of unnecessary suffering.

I submit that healthy, awakened grief, fear, and anger are some of wisest teachers we have. Saying that undoes the whole simple scale of higher = better.

As compared to the terrible notion of low and high vibrations, what we want are deep and upraised vibrations. Notice the different vibration from the word deep as opposed to low. Notice the difference in saying I’m feeling deep versus I’m feeling low. One is about an absence (low) while the other is about a positive state (deep).

Deep vibration comes from integrating in a healthy way all the emotions labeled as negative by Hawkins and other New Agers. Yes it’s better to live out of peace, harmony, and joy than negative and unconscious grief, shame, desire, and fear. Much better still however is to live out of conscious integrated, awakened fear, desire, anger, shame, grief, as well as elation, peacefulness, happiness, and inspiration. To live a full-spectrum psychospiritual existence. That’s true depth.

Moreover, the word high has its own problems. It’s floaty, fleeting. You take drugs you get high but only for a short time. Inevitably you come back down (sometimes crash back down). It’s very easy to get hooked on spiritual practice or higher states of being and become a spiritual junkie.

I thought long and hard about what a better word for high would be–something that would speak to the value of inspirational experience but without the pomposity or ungrounded nature of high, I was kind of stumped, so I went to a thesaurus.

Options include: lofty (again too ungrounded), elevated (too temporary, too spiritual junkie), hovering (way too ungrounded). Another set of words emphasized more the bigness of high. Words like immense, gigantic, huge, formidable, colossal, towering, etc. These are think are again overinflated in a spiritual context.

Which left a few other potential candidates:

  • soaring (might work actually–an eagle soars but is also quite strong and in a sense “grounded”)
  • eminent (would be too confusing but has a truth to it)

And lastly upraised.

I like upraised.

Upraised seems more substantial than its cousin uplifted (again too floaty). Upraised might be a word that fits here. Instead of speaking of a high vibration one would speak of being upraised. There’s up but the raised part has a certain solidity to it (like raising a child).

Rather than talking about a high vibration, we should speak of a healthy ascent under whatever specific name you like there (upraised? soaring?). There absolutely is a place for healthy ascent in the spiritual path. There is Eros, the deep desire of life to evolve, grow, stretch, expand, and push beyond limits. There is Magic, the mysterious force of Creation. There is synchronicity. Things want to manifest into existence. There is incredible allurement to Life. The Universe winks at us constantly. Life is out to seduce us–to call us into partnership to create some beautiful. Following those winks from existence brings a kind of magical playful dimension to living.

That is all wonderfully true, but why is it the opposite of grieving well? Why is allurement the opposite of accessing our hatred to re-own parts of our shadow? Why is it I should have to choose one over the other? Why is one positive and the other negative?

Here is the motto I follow:

  • Awakened fear is the source of our intuition.
  • Awakened anger establishes healthy boundaries.
  • Awakened desire is The Creative Impulse flowing through us.
  • Awakened shame is liberated humility.
  • Awakened grief teaches us how to mourn and therefore how to live.
  • Awakened sadness is utter release.
  • Awakened guilt is proper remorse and contrition.

None of these are available to one who promotes high vibrations. The richness of incarnate human existence is lost. The wondrous fabric of the human being is torn irrevocably by high vibration New Age teaching.

In my church days I once met a person who came to the church I was working from another church. She said she that when she first started attending her old church, she was found the community really helped her in her spiritual life. She felt a deep sense of meaning there. But after a few years it all began to feel flat. I asked her why she thought her soul starting drying up there. She had this great line, she said, “It’s always a sunny day there [at that church].”

That’s a brilliant critique. When a person is in the dumps a sunny outlook seems like a ray a hope. And for a short time it really can be that. But when one comes out of the pits and readjusts eventually they will realize that it’s actually not good to only have sunny days. “It’s always a sunny day over there” was not a compliment. It was a very important insight and a kind of warning.

So it is with high vibration teaching. It can help people start to take responsibility for their lives, focus on gratitude, and put their energy to doing what brings them happiness, fulfillment, and peace. But eventually it comes to feel flat.

We need to find beauty in the rain, in the storms, in the nighttime, the grey overcast days and yes also absolutely in the sunny days. All of them. The high vibration/low vibration teaching can get some people, for a time, out of the ditch. I’ve seen it. But then it creates a new and far subtler obstacle to further depth and growth. It’s easy to see how letting toxic shame destroy our lives is bad. It’s much harder (but nonetheless true) to notice the ways in which being drawn to high vibration is preventing our full conscious expressions as human beings.

Better to be deep than low. Better to be upraised than high. Best to integrate the best of both.

* My criticism of the high/low vibration scheme from David Hawkins’ is not a criticism of his spiritual experience (which I think is quite real and powerful). It’s a criticism of this aspect of his interpretation and teaching around spiritual experience.

16 Jul 2014 3 comments / READ MORE

In Defense of Spiritual Sacrifice

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Mystics, Spirituality

“The ways of spirit are not the ways of sacrifice, but rather a way of opening yourself fully to the infinite glories of the universe.”

–Marianne Williamson, The Law of Divine Compensation (p.2)

When I initially read this line from Marianne Williamson’s book my first thought was “hmm, that’s interesting.” Then I thought about it for a few seconds and my next thought was, “Actually I think that’s wrong.”

That second thought has led to this piece. I want to explore why I think it’s wrong to write off spiritual sacrifice altogether.

Sacrifice. It’s a word with an incredible amount of baggage. It’s a word that’s been used and misused for centuries. It’s old school in the worst sense. The misuse and abuse of sacrifice in spirituality deserves all the criticism it’s received of late.

I’m going to argue that there is a positive aspect to sacrifice (when rightly understood). Statements like Williamson’s above, which I see as very dominant in our contemporary spiritual world, are causing us to lose the true meaning of sacrifice.

Admittedly the history of our religious traditions is that they have overemphasized and hugely overplayed the hand of negative, dehumanizing sacrifice. The pendulum for centuries was locked in one direction but now has come crashing back too far in the other.

There is a middle way here–one that charts a path of wisdom beyond the extremes of dehumanizing sacrifice and *only* the infinite glories of the universe on the other.

To ground this argument we need to make a distinction between unhealthy, destructive, and dehumanizing forms of sacrifice and healthy, life-giving, and humanizing forms of sacrifice. If that distinction turns out to be false, then this whole argument I’m trying to make falls apart. If however we find there is the potential for constructive, healthy sacrifice, then the binary set up in the quotation above between spiritual sacrifice (seen as wholly negative) and opening ourself fully to the infinite glories of the universe (seen as wholly positive) will crumble. And if that dualism crumbles, then much will be destroyed in its wake.

So here is my short hand definitions for negative and positive (or perhaps better unhealthy and healthy) forms of sacrifice.

Unhealthy, Dehumanizing Sacrifice

In this form of sacrifice there is something deeply valuable and intrinsic to my being. I’m told by my spiritual teaching I have to give this valuable part of myself up in order to be a truly spiritual person. This deeply valuable piece might be my voice, my power, my emotions, my bodily desires, my gender, perhaps even my fundamental sense of self.

I’m supposed to sacrifice one or more of these parts of myself in order to prove I’m not selfish. I sacrifice these fundamental elements of my being in order to prove to God–or whatever spiritual authority claims to speak on God’s behalf–that I love God more than I love myself.

The act of sacrificing these parts of myself is painful and I don’t enjoy it but somehow through gritted teeth I keep pushing through. This form of sacrifice is often tied to the glorification of suffering–the more I suffer by sacrificing authentic parts of myself, the more spiritual I’ve shown myself to be.

This form of spiritual sacrifice is admittedly by far the majority. While I disagree substantially with Marianne Williamson’s quotation above, I can sympathize with why she said it. This dehumanizing form of spiritual sacrifice has sadly dominated so much of the spiritual path, particularly in the Western world (though by no means exclusively in the Western world).

Still I don’t think sacrifice should be jettisoned altogether. Deep in my bones I believe there’s another form of sacrifice, one being disregarded, one that we need.

Healthy, Life-Giving Sacrifice

“I am being poured out as a libation on the altar of the world.” –St. Paul

This utterly profound statement from St. Paul teaches us what is the path of life-giving sacrifice.

We are vessels. We are chalices of the divine. Each vessel has its own unique flavor of the spirit(s). We are to freely, of our own volition, pour out our wine to the last drop. We are not to do so because there is something fundamentally disordered about our bodies, our emotions, our desires, our humanness. Quite the opposite in fact. These are all part of our chalice–even the chipped, faded, and broken pieces of the chalice. We are meant to pour this wine of our being out as a gift, an offering.

In many ancient cults, wine was poured on an altar, on a fire, as a gift to the gods. St. Paul is playing on this image by saying rather that we are the gods who must give to Life itself. The altar of holiness is creation herself. This is where we are meant to pour out the wine of our essence.

The sacrifice is meant to occur not as a form of punishment nor as a form of spiritual heroics. We don’t earn brownie points with our Maker.

True sacrifice is true because life is a giving, fruitful act. The reason to (correctly) sacrifice ourselves spiritually is so that we would truly live.

Williamson sets up a false dualism between sacrifice and the glories of the universe. In actual fact, the glories of the universe exist because everything gives off its fullness to the last drop. A supernova exploded and gave forth her cosmic entrails so that we might have a solar system. Mothers give of their very bodily existence, their blood, milk, and tissue to generate life. Life feeds on life. This is a holy thing–if not always totally pleasant. In other words, opening ourselves fully to the glories of the universe is itself a sacrificial spiritual act.

The word sacrifice means an act that make something holy.

If we say that the spiritual path does not involve sacrifice, then we are saying it does not involve holiness. Sacrifice, rightly understood, is the only way to make (or perhaps better) reveal the holy.

To walk the path of drinking up the fullness of the glories of the universe is a beautiful way. It however leads to the realization that we are called to give our distilled essence as a sacred offering. As we have been gifted, so we gift in return.

Where unhealthy sacrifice is tied up in suffering, healthy sacrifice is intimately linked to surrender as the proper response to grace. 

In surrender we find ourselves overwhelmed by Love, forgiven, redeemed, love and embraced beyond all words, measure, or understanding. In response to this overwhelming love, we have nothing to do but say that we surrender, affirming our deepest allegiance to The Lord, Love Herself.

Sacrifice however goes one step further than surrender. Sacrifice is surrender made concrete and real in action in daily life (sacrifice in that regard is very akin to submission, another scary spiritual ‘s’ word).

Without surrender, spiritual sacrifice seems, perhaps inexorably, to veer into its unhealthy and dehumanizing form. Sacrifice without surrender as a response to grace is trying to earn divine brownie points when in truth there’s no such counting system to be found.

When sacrifice comes out of surrender, then we freely choose to walk the way of pouring out the wine of our beings. The wine is the spirit, that which gives life. Each of us has a distinct flavor which we call soul. We give both to the fullest.

This conscious self-giving action, flowing from surrender, is the healthy, true form of sacrifice. It is an absolutely vital act for a full, conscious, spiritual practice.

* Though this isn’t the primary emphasis of the piece, it should be noted that the book from which this quotation of Marianne Williamson’s comes describes itself as “a path to material abundance through immaterial means, and a set of spiritual keys to worldly power (p.2).” In fact that’s the sentence that immediately precedes the quotation I cited above. A spiritual path that completely denies the value of any and all sacrifice, will led to this kind of statement about using spirituality to gain material abundance and spiritual keys to worldly power. I just want to note that’s an inevitable consequence of denying sacrifice altogether.

05 May 2014 1 comment / READ MORE